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Classical Notes

The soul of the repertoire

Mahler’s mirror reflects as deeply as ever

The symphonies of Gustav Mahler (pictured) have ardent advocates in Michael Tilson Thomas, the late Leonard Bernstein, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The symphonies of Gustav Mahler (pictured) have ardent advocates in Michael Tilson Thomas, the late Leonard Bernstein, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. (New York Philharmonic Archives)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / July 9, 2010

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“The Mahler renaissance is still very much with us, and I’ve been brooding about it. No matter where I turn, I seem to run into Mahler symphonies, most of which irritate me like sand in ice cream. . . . To me, Mahler was a futile figure who looked back rather than forward, and who was an eternal emotional adolescent of a postromantic.’’

That sour appraisal was penned in 1969 by Harold C. Schonberg, then chief music critic of The New York Times. Though he was writing against the general phenomenon of Mahler’s popularity, his jeremiad was probably also aimed at Leonard Bernstein, one of the composer’s fiercest champions and a major catalyst in said renaissance. The Times article appeared a few weeks before Bernstein — who had a bumper sticker that read “Mahler Grooves’’ pasted into one of his scores — was to end his tenure at the New York Philharmonic with the Third Symphony; two years earlier, the conductor had published an enthusiastic if slightly sanctimonious article in High Fidelity titled “Mahler: His Time Has Come.’’

Wednesday marked the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth, and in the years since Bernstein’s proclamation it has become clear that his time has not only come but endured. If Schonberg (who died in 2003) found Mahler’s late-’60s popularity hard to stomach, he would have found today’s situation intolerable. Mahler’s symphonies now dominate orchestral schedules, a position once occupied by Beethoven’s. A complete cycle of Mahler symphonies was once a rarity, something that came around every few decades if you were lucky. By the end of the 2011 season, New York will have hosted two such cycles in three seasons — both from visiting orchestras.

The Tanglewood season is doing its part. Music director James Levine was to have conducted the BSO in Mahler’s Second and Fourth symphonies and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in the Third. With Levine sidelined by his recovery from back surgery, Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the Second (tonight’s season opener) and Third (July 17), while Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena will take over the Fourth on July 31.

Mahler’s preeminence is all the more shocking when one considers the slimness of the body of work on which it hangs. He was a full-time conductor — a legendary one at that — who always complained about how little time he had to compose. From his compositional maturity he left no operas, solo instrumental works, or chamber music. Just nine symphonies (10 if you count one left unfinished) and a collection of songs and song cycles.

Why, then, do these few works continue to exert such an inexorable pull not only on listeners but also on musicians, who feel compelled to revisit them at such frequency? There is his facility with the orchestra, an instrument he molded to his imagination in ways previously unexplored. He nudged musical vocabulary away from tonality while holding onto the vitality of late Romanticism. And there is the sheer scope of Mahler’s vision, his famous conviction that the symphony “must be like the world — it must embrace everything.’’

But these factors go only so far. The central reason, both deeper and more obvious, is that we attach ourselves to Mahler because we hear so much of ourselves in the bitterness, melancholy, hard-won joy, and quiet ecstasy that populate his works. Our own questions about our life and selves — and especially about death — are coded into music substantial and complex enough to provide intellectual as well as emotional nutrition.

This affective stew is probably what Schonberg meant in his crack about “emotional adolescent.’’ And there is occasionally something juvenile in the heart Mahler wears so conspicuously on his sleeve. But it seems wrongheaded to scold a composer for offering listeners a mirror — both beautiful and terrifying — up to their own natures. Simon Rattle once described the effect of hearing Mahler’s Second Symphony when he was 10 or 11 years old. “I was just wandering around in some kind of dream. I felt as though my insides had been taken out — which is, I now realize, the right feeling.’’

One wonderful consequence of Mahler’s popularity is the stream of new recordings that continues to issue, seemingly without end. Two of the most rewarding are Paavo Järvi’s recording of the Second Symphony with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Virgin Classics); and a Philharmonia Orchestra performance of the Ninth led by Esa-Pekka Salonen (Signum). Järvi’s sharply etched reading features some of the most phenomenally precise Mahler playing in recent memory, no mean feat when you consider the competition. And Salonen’s Ninth is lithe and often hair-raisingly intense, a welcome respite from more moribund accounts. Among anniversary-related rereleases, EMI has assembled a solid collection of previously available recordings.

Books, too, continue to examine Mahler’s life and work from a variety of perspectives. The authoritative biography by Henri-Louis de la Grange was completed in 2008 with the publication of its fourth and final volume by Oxford University Press. (The four together take up almost 4,000 pages.) De la Grange is a scholar and a master of the details of the composer’s life; this is not a book for the faint-hearted. But when he steps back from the minutiae and writes about the broader contours of Mahler’s life, he does so with a welcome, clear-eyed poignancy.

Were I to be sent to the proverbial desert island and forced to choose one work of Mahler’s to bring along, I would be tempted to leave aside the symphonies, with their bold colors and life-or-death struggles, and instead choose the song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’’ (“I am lost to the world’’). Here, in six or seven austere minutes, Mahler sketches a portrait of complete isolation from the world to words by the poet Friedrich Rückert: “I am dead to the world’s tumult/ And I rest in a quiet realm/ I live alone in my heaven/ In my love, in my song.’’

In this song’s compact iridescence is perhaps the purest distillation of Mahler’s voice, one that will be with us in the decades ahead. He grooves still.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.