Royal Concertgebouw – 1

Symphony No.6 in A minor

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Evan Dickerson

Reviewed: 1 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mahler is not the great composer many take him to be; rather, he’s an average one, promoted beyond his merits. Already I anticipate there are some disconcerted readers out there, but I strongly urge you to look at his works in relation to those of Bruckner, and then you should know why, providing you really listen to the music. Rather than compose to instil the certainties of religion, like Bruckner, Mahler chose the path of instilling his self-doubts in ever more distracted and destructive terms. He raised the psyche to the level of pre-eminence above life’s greater imponderable questions of faith, and in so doing created musical neurosis for its own sake. His search became for why things are as they are, rather than acknowledgement that there are things beyond man’s comprehension. Largely, this desire for explanation of our own condition is what has drawn modern audiences to Mahler’s works, and led many – not least performers – to become obsessed by the man, the music almost becoming a pathway to identification with him. Is it that the act of listening to his music could be taken as a voluntary act of catharsis in today’s troubled world?

Of the later symphonies it is the Sixth, seen in totality, which starts to give serious credence to this view of the man and his work. It is a highly problematic piece for audience and performers alike. Mahler vacillated over the order of the two central movements leaving things unsettled at his death, as with the inclusion of two or three decisive hammer blows in the final movement. The direction a conductor chooses is likely to impact greatly on finding any meaning the work contains – be it trite or profound. Ultimately the work is of an absolute and bleak destruction, utterly unavoidable, gloriously grand though the scoring may be.

It’s difficult to think of a work that places you so immediately at the core of its soundworld as does this symphony. The opening theme, given demonstratively, proclaimed a vision and execution that spoke of long experience in this music, as well as exceptionally integrated balances, even under the duress that Mahler imposes. Such quality is required: solid building and flexibility from the double basses and cellos upward and solo woodwinds and brass (notably trombones) with the ability to cut through the stringy mass with ease. The percussive battery fulfilled its purpose admirably.

In choosing to place the Andante moderato second, Jansons matched Mahler’s choice when conducting the work (for all his uncertainty for publication) and made the drama of the symphony hang together more. There is greater logic in moving from the scherzo as the third movement to the massively troubling finale, than if one starts from the more remote Andante, an interlude with an almost dream-like release from troubles harking back to memories of long ago, and anticipated in the first movement, and rudely interrupted by off-stage cowbells, as if we find ourselves faced with an Austrian mountain range out of nowhere. The scene-painting is vivid, the contrast incongruous, and ultimately one that fails to make a lasting impact. Where some might be tempted to treat Mahler’s effects too cheaply in performance, Jansons instead took them all at face value. The result was perhaps the best one could hope for. The first movement concluded with renewed marching vigour; the work’s inevitability set in place.

The scherzo forms a curious mixture of black inner recesses and self-doubting, projected largely though fluctuating time-signatures and the unearthly sound of glockenspiel and oboe against the dense lower strings. Pacing and voicing of individual parts here played a vital role, with forthright contributions from the percussion, and Jansons steering a line on the edge of nervousness and certainty at what is yet to come.

The symphony’s major-minor concerns come to a head in the final movement, greatly influencing the path along which Mahler takes us. From the three-note brooding opening, via a brief mountainside reminiscence, which in another setting might usefully lighten the mood, Mahler’s grip on destruction is absolute: indeed this might almost be his re-telling of Berlioz’s ‘March to the Scaffold’, for it is there that we find ourselves at the end. But unlike Berlioz the journey is not opium-induced, it is all too real and personal, the three great hammer blows marking crises of faith.

I started by stating that many have searched for meaning in this work. What Jansons gave was a thrilling interpretation, graphically portrayed; I could not help but be drawn into it. Left standing on the trapdoor with a rope (formed by the trombones and tuba) around my neck, I began to wonder if I had cheated death. Of course not. The trap swings open, and I am left hanging, emotionally drained. Mahler takes you to a place that nothing would induce you to visit willingly. In the company of the Royal Concertgebouw and Jansons it became an experience shaded by passion and admiration, yet after the event self-disgust at the feelings inspired. It was a strangely macabre elation felt on leaving the hall – where lesser interpretations have left me unmoved, to be taken on this journey was an honour.

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