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Mahler’s Second Symphony Pierces the Tanglewood Nightscape

Serge Koussevitzky Shed, Tanglewood
07/09/2010 -  & July 10, 11, 2010
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor

Layla Claire (soprano), Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver (conductor), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)

S. Blythe & M. Tilson Thomas (© Hilary Scott)

Michael Tilson Thomas opened the Tanglewood season conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony on Friday, July 9th. It was easy to see why Tilson Thomas has made conducting Mahler a signature. His sensibility and the demands of the music mesh magically. This performance was as wrenching as it was dramatic. Tilson Thomas succeeded in revealing anew the unique and urgent symphony.
The audience was transfixed from the start. No hands covered ears, as Hans von Bülow’s did when Mahler played the first movement for him. Every time Mahler looked up from the keyboard, von Bülow quickly uncovered his ears, but at the end he remarked, "If what I have heard is still music, I no longer understand music." Mahler thought about quitting as a composer, but didn’t. So we have this Second Symphony, often called the Resurrection, but not at Mahler’s direction.
Under Tilson Thomas, Mahler’s early problems with the old guard become clear. Mahler’s music has a brighter palette, bigger climaxes, calmer quiet, a broader range of vision and a more ample scope than theirs. Sixty-seven instruments are called for – without counting the violins, violas, cellos and basses. Characteristically, an unusual rute, tam-tam and crash and suspended cymbals are listed. Mahler could hear everything in his mind’s ear and Tilson Thomas did not miss a sound.
To write the piece, Mahler repeatedly asked himself, "When will the devil come?" Devil was the name he gave the mood of the symphony. It took eight years to complete and holds together remarkably well having been wrested and culled from so many different moods and inspirations.

The first movement is a funeral march for the death of a friend. It was written as a stand-alone piece, Funeral Rites. Instead of being inside a church, the sound is heard as though you were the young Mahler, sitting in a village square, listening to the marching bands approach, pass by, and then disappear in the distance. From this vantage point, Mahler also heard the folk songs, which are often osmosed into his work. He first heard these tunes before he could walk. When at five he got an accordion, he reproduced them regularly. Mahler was not out there like Bartók scouring the countryside for new music. These songs were the warp and woof of his early life. Dramatic, melodic, agitated.
From the start, Tilson Thomas brought forward the foreshadowing of music to come. After the first cymbal crash, a lovely violin line ascends, and is picked up later. The opening passage on the cellos and basses trudges at the close, the basses backed by quiet strokes on the tam-tam until finally we hear only the lowest notes of the two harps.
Tilson Thomas negotiated the swing between fast, loud sections and the beautifully lyric slow ones from the moment the first theme is sounded by the basses. The basses had great weight throughout. Tilson Thomas well understands that a piece of such disparate origins must hold together. In part this is done by a mood both ethereal and damning. Central to the cohesion is the basses steady beat, acting like a pedal pulse, and without exaggeration. Their unifying force was clearly present. The dissonant fortissimo in the brass was particularly arresting. The movement ends marvelously, with a cascading downward scale, two soft thuds on the bass drum and plucked lower strings.
In the first movement Mahler is bearing the hero of his First Symphony to his grave for funeral rites. "From a higher vantage point I am reflecting in a pure mirror." Although the symphony is often compared to Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler has taken a quantum leap forward from religiosity to spirituality. This tone may well be a reason for Mahler’s popularity among young audiences today.

The Second is one of the longest pieces in the classical repertoire, one hundred twenty minutes taken at a good clip. Tilson Thomas, a romantic conductor, prefers slower tempi. This allows lyric portions of the symphony to soar. It also reveals the mosaic of details of Mahler’s conception, and allows the listener a moment to appreciate the construction.
Taking a break between movements, Tilson Thomas scanned the audience with a smile. No one got up to leave as Debussy had after the second movement. Mahler was crushed when Debussy told him the music was too Schubertian, too Viennese, too Slav. Mahler’s wife Alma had sat next to Debussy the night before at dinner and noted that he took only the minutest helping of any dish. It is a doubtful that such an abstemious man could possibly appreciate the abundant music of Mahler.
Mahler said it was impossible to explain his work, but he did suggest that the job of a symphonic work is "to be the world, it must embrace everything." All the tools available to a composer should be deployed. Here they are.

At one point Mahler placed the third movement Scherzo before the second movement Andante. After going back and forth on that issue he settled on the reverse sequence, but that left him so uncomfortable about the "overemphasized, sharp and inartistic contrast" between the hugeness of the opening movement and the lightness of the Andante that he considered reordering the internal structure of the Andante. What he did instead was call for a pause of at least five minutes between the first and second movements. This was to be the only major pause in the long work, whose third, fourth and fifth movements were to be played without interruption. Tilson Thomas broke after the first and turned to the audience with a huge grin on his face: this is for you, Gus, as he separated the dark first movement from the idyllic second.
The charming second movement in A flat major has an old-fashioned minuet. The contrast between quick, demanding music and slow, lyrical music continues, but is reversed; now lyrical music dominates the quicker passages. The main theme is played pizzacato on violins, three’s no brass to speak of, flecks of the harp and piccolo provide flecks of color.

Tilson Thomas took the last three movements without a break. Among the many pleasures of the third movement is a sentimental tune played by a quartet of trumpets Brahms, who was chary to praise, called this movement "akin to genius." Following Mahler closely, Tilson Thomas dared to end the movement with enough of a swoosh from the tam-tam to partially cover the mezzo voice which opens the fourth movement. Tilson Thomas chose to move through the third to fifth without a breath. It left one breathless.
As Stephanie Blythe sang the opening line of Urlicht her voice came from another place, perhaps shaped by the short o’s of "O Röschen rot." It was metallic like a horn, and yet gentle and otherworldly. The effect was of moving while standing still, an expression of simple faith. Mahler changes the time signature 22 times in the first 36 bars.
Blythe has one of those voices that always arrive from elsewhere, absolutely glorious. She is a wonderful acting singer, but tonight, she must have been remembering the recent death of her mother, a woman who taught her to sing German, the language in which Urlicht is written. By the end of the concert, tears were rolling down her cheeks, but while she was singing, all of this sadness and emotion went memorably into the performance.
Mahler lay on his bed and pretended to be dead so he could get the feeling for this symphony, allowing it to take shape within him. What he achieved is ethereal like our vague ideas of angels and heaven, but also furious and angry like the Dies Irae of the more traditional mass. Dylan Thomas may have listened to this work when he wrote, "Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Urlicht means primeval light.

Ironically, von Bülow, who had proclaimed the first movement as "not music", provided the inspiration for the finale and conclusion of the symphony. He had died in Cairo, and when his body was returned to Hamburg, a boys’ choir had sung Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode at a memorial church service. Mahler had the solution to the finale of his Second. He picked up on the opening phrase. "It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for – conceiving by the Holy Ghost! What I then experienced in sound now had to be expressed in sound. And yet – if I had not already borne the work within me – how could I have had that experience? ... It is always the same with me: only when I experience something do I compose, and only when composing do I experience!"
The soprano’s entry in the finale is tricky. The solo voice must rise gradually and at first unnoticed out of the choral mass. Layla Claire, an up and coming soprano, arrived as an underline to the magnificent Tanglewood chorus in the 5th movement. She added emphasis to the final line of each stanza with her rich voice. With this came a thrilling offstage performance by horns, trumpets and drums. Mahler started conducting offstage, and made sure here that no one could ignore the contribution.

Alma Mahler reports that an old Viennese aristocrat, sensing that death was near, asked Mahler to come over and tell her what life was like on the other side. She was sure he knew all about it because she had heard the Second Symphony. Mahler’s insights apparently did not satisfy. He left after a short time. The audience received Mahler’s insights on Friday as riveting and compelling. For all the commentary and complexity, it is a wonderfully accessible piece and has always been well received by audiences.
The evening ended as pianist Emanuel Ax, wreathed in a transcendent smile, mounted the steps backstage to congratulate all of his friends. Tilson Thomas and his troops had captured the urgency and uniqueness of this classic symphony.

The 2010 Tanglewood Season
Michael Tilson Thomas’ Website
Layla Claire’s Website

Susan Hall



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