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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Bernstein Legacy VI: Mahler's Sixth Symphony

Yes, this is "the one with the hammer."
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cover art by Erte for the Mahler 6th © 1987 Deutsche Grammophon. Photo of Daniel Druckman by Chris Lee © 2016
The New York Philharmonic. Detail from cartoon of Gustav Mahler © 1910.
When Gustav Mahler started work on his Sixth Symphony, in 1904,life was going pretty well. He had married Alma Schindler, 19 years his junior and one of the most desirable brides in Vienna. They had had two beautiful daughters. Winters were spent leading the Vienna Hofoper, summers composing by the side of a mountain lake. Things were great, but this idyll would not last.

The Sixth, recorded here by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein on Sept. 27 1987, puts the lie to that happiness. This is Mahler's darkest groove, a four-movement journey into the abyss that starts out in a fierce and determined manner only to finally collapse on itself in the fate of inexorable fate. That dark fate would be echoed in Mahler's own life: in the next few years he would suffer a series of crushing blows that left him a bitter and broken man.

Fate, in Mahler's orchestra is expressed with the blow of a giant hammer. This custom percussion instrument comes in many sizes and shapes, but essentially consists of an enormous wooden mallet (four to six feet in length) that is used, at the correct moment to strike a hollow wooden box. The effect is simple and devastating, and (depending on which version of the symphony is being performed) occurs two or three times in the final movement.

The opening march in the first movement is taken at a very fast pace, with the orchestra tramping steadily ahead at a pace that leaves the listener slightly breathless. The answering love theme, another portrait of Mahler's beloved Alma, played here with a transparent sound in the strings and winds. Throughout this movement, Bernstein achieves moments of limpid orchestral clarity before the whole storms to a close.

Mahler originally intended for the Scherzo to go second, but later revised the work to place it third after the slow movement. Bernstein, on this recording elects for the original format, which shows how the dance movement is constructed from the bones of themes first presented in the opening movement. The effect is that of continued assault, much as the first two movements function together in the Symphony No. 5.

The Adagio is all sweetness, a slow tune of sadness and great weight. This is Mahler with his heart on his sleeve, and Bernstein lets the Vienna players sing out with lush string tone and lucid, limpid textures in the quietest moments. The music surges toward some imagined transcendence but never quite reaches the pinnacle, dying away before that climax can be fully achieved.

The finale is a unique structure, an extended and expanded sonata form built around two different thematic ideas. These ideas build on each other in the fashion of a determined, forward-moving march toward some unknown horizon. And then the hammer hits in measure 336 in conjunction with timpani, gong and cymbals. The effect is brutal, stopping the work and the dramatic progress of the protagonist in its tracks. The momentum slowly resumes, picking itself up and marching forward, until felled by a second hammer blow, this one at measure 479. Bernstein follows Mahler's second intentions here, skipping the third hammer-blow. The symphony ends in silence and despair.

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