Music Chronicle

By Dhuga, U. S. | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Music Chronicle


Dhuga, U. S., The Hudson Review


Music Chronicle

A TOUGHER TEACHING SCHEDULE HAVING PREVENTED ME from the usual spring visit to London, I found myself shifting from one classical music "campus" to another here in New York City. The concerts which interested me most included a revisiting of Riccardo Chailly conducting the New York Philharmonic through Mahler's Seventh Symphony; the New York City Opera's production of Carmen; and Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall's (what an awkward collocation) "The Andsnes Project."

Mahler has been aptly called, by Léon Botstein, the archetypal "conductor as tyrant," whose "legendary temper and dictatorial manner derived from an intensity and fanaticism."1 Mahler's Seventh Symphony is indeed intense and at moments, I daresay, fanatical, with its purely instrumental composition and sometimes tautological Nachtmusik passages punctuating like so many qualifying, parenthetical clauses the outer movements of light and half-light. The gradations of sonorities can be grating. Apparently, so too can the music's duration. One noticed late-comers arriving in the second movement and early-goers leaving in the fourth. Perhaps the Tuesday 7:30 P.M. start, as compared with the 8:00 P.M. start the Saturday before, had thrown some off their schedules; perhaps some were bored by four consecutive nights of the overwhelming Seventh. I do not mean to make light of Mahler; far from it, returning to the Seventh in so short a time span is necessary in order to make some sense of its hard-won coherency. But I do think that Mahler-Bruckner is such another-does not always suit performance in our concert halls, accessible as they are in terms not only of entry but also of exit and of re-entry. The prolonged breaks for people to cease coughing and to sit down (or, as the case may be, to get out the door) only enhance the sense of disjuncture between movements and interfere with that characteristically Mahlerian sense of drifting and returning continuity among often obscure instrumental assignations. And is it not obscurity that Mahler will seem to have sought when we read his letter of March 26, 1886 to the critic Max Marschalk: "My need to express myself musically-symphonically begins only where the obscure perceptions hold sway, at the gate that leads into the Other world'; the world in which things are no longer separable through the agency of time and place."

Unhappily for Mahler, the agencies of time and place do often intrude upon his work in performance ("today," one is tempted to add, but maybe it has always been that way?). No clearer signals of that intrusion could have been seen and heard at Avery Fisher Hall than the premature, uncertain applause of the audience after the Seventh had gone on for what seemed to some to have been long enough; the desperate rushing in and rushing out of listeners impatient with missing something or impatient of having heard too much; Chailly's apparently disappointed lowering of the baton during a prolonged epidemic of coughing and rustling after forty-five minutes of music. The "suffering" of "real labor pains in the process" of composing "some symphonies" which Mahler intimated to Marshalk were, it seemed, shared by the audience.

So be it. What I did glean was a distant, hesitant start on Chailly's part -perhaps wilfully flat, strained bathos? Chailly's was a Mahlerian technique. Yet the first movement should, I think, somewhat shine so as to make operative the scored, indicated bathos which will indeed be heard in the second movement's haunting march, delivered as it is with one horn sounding forte, the other echoing it piano with an almost sentimental anti-sentimentality resulting from the use of a mute. Rather, through his pleonastic use of quietness, Mahler seems here to score a parody of sentimentality. Signally triumphal, however, the first movement's main theme is granted to a military band instrument, the tenor horn, a tuba-shaped instrument invented, like the saxophone, by Adolphe Sax. …

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