Sunday, January 18, 2009

Emotional or Cooler Mahler?

In an earlier posting I raised the question of why in some periods audiences and other listeners will prefer a more emotional performance of a Mahler symphony, say, by Bernstein, and why at other times a cooler variety, say by Boulez, takes preference.

I once conducted a poll on the Mahler List as to why the Mahler boom had occurred, and the majority of respondents, I think maybe 20 people, said it was the advent of the LP and the new high fidelity and stereo sound systems. But the advent of the new technology would not fully suffice, because then any composer whose works appeared on LP and were playable on a terrific stereo system should have had his/her boom as well. No, something more than technology was behind the sudden popularity of Mahler. I think that in the decades of the 60s and the 70s, the emotional interpretation caught the imagination of a listening audience for whom the horrific tragedies wrought by the Nazis during WW II had immediacy, a people desperate to find expression for the traumas of mass murder, genocide, and the crushing of European humanism. The Mahler boom took off because, Mahler, even though he died in 1911, was victimized by anti-Semitism and could represent in music the victimization of millions during the European catastrophe. For Bernstein, Mahler's music in toto became a vast musical work in which the Knabenwunderhorn songs, the Wayfarer Songs, the symphonies, the Ruckert Lieder and the Kindertotenlieder, and Das Lied von der Erde, especially Der Abschied, all form a great work, at once, Mahler’s autobiography, at once, European Jewry's Great Memorial and Requiem, at once, a 20th century European tragedy. I think this is what drew so much attention in the 60s and 70s. What compelled audiences in those decades was the great emotional, tragic power that was realized by Bernstein and by Walter, Mahler’’s protégé, and others, among them Haitink, who, conducting the (as it was known then) Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in its great concert hall, provided the Dutch with their own historic references to a great pre-war Mahler tradition and their own memorial to their horrors under the Nazi occupation.

Now as to Boulez: As time went on, the generations that had sought and attended this Mahlerian musical tragedy had perhaps exhausted their own needs for powerful cathartic release. Mahler's music had been long enjoying its high place in the canon, and audiences, older as well as younger members, were seeking new ways to enjoy Mahler. And so the less emotional, cooler Boulez and similar interpreters.

To conclude: Bernstein was a great tragedian who realized the tragic powers so manifest within Mahler's music. Boulez and the cooler approach satisfies others who for whatever reasons have less investment in the historical, tragic Mahler.

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