Conducting Mahler: I Have Lost Touch with the World

by | Jan 21, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Conducting Mahler: I Have Lost Touch with the World

Films by Frank Scheffer
Studio: Ideale Audience DVD 2 (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 4:3 full screen color
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
12-Page Booklet includes Discography
Length: 72 minutes
Rating: *****

In honor of two Mahler Festivals: the 1920 Mahler Festival under Mengelberg in 1920, and the May 1995 Amsterdam Festival, director Frank Scheffer has assembled five major interpreters of this powerful musical personality–Riccardo Chailly, Bernard Haitink, Sir Simon Rattle, Riccardo Muti, and Claudio Abbado–to reminisce and to perform his monumental symphonic oeuvre. Both Chailly and Rattle assign their first love of orchestral color and even their decision to become conductors to Mahler’s influence. The emphasis for the first ten minutes of rehearsal footage is concentrated on extreme closeups of the faces of the conductors–Abbado, Chailly, and Haitink–as they witness their visions of the music unfold. In a moment of humility, Muti says that conductors’ “fidelity to the score” does not guarantee “that we understand the infinite behind the music.” The title of film, taken from one of Mahler’s Rueckert songs, expresses conductor Chailly’s relationship to his Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – a song of farewell after 16 years.

What we come to appreciate is the sense of dynamic detail each of the conductors brings to the score he rehearses.  Haitink works the pizzicati of the second strings in the laendler section of the Resurrection Symphony. “It is not Schubert,” recalls Haitink quoting Klemperer, “but it is a man nostalgically remembering Schubert.” Haitink rehearses the French horn part to achieve optimum directionality. Chailly must have no sense of pulse at the opening of the D Major Symphony. For the first attack in the finale, he must have attention to the second bar. Chailly calls his own standing at the transition between two centuries a good vantage point to appreciate Mahler. Abbado works strains from the opening of the Ninth Symphony, the camera lingering upon the harp’s three notes.  While the strains of the Third Symphony (under Haitink) resound, we see the men behind stage, “the unsung,” moving carton and crates, the stuff of symphony orchestras. Haitink reflects on the clarity and objectivity of the Concertgebouw sound, a more relxed sound that he attributes to the hall. Then, Haitink is about to direct the A Minor Sixth Symphony. He says he will “save the players” for actual performance, but the rehearsal is superheated from the outset. Haitink alludes to Furtwaengler’s distinction between the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic as “male” and “female” ensembles.

Riccardo Muti appears at the helm of the G Major Symphony, his right hand doing all the work.  He refers to the ostinato, rustic character that the clarinets begin to cloud and shadow. Then suddenly a Haydn sound inserts a new element, even humor. “Mahler is trying to make fun of us,” Muti quips. He asks for better intonation on the trumpet part. “When I arrive at the end of the Symphony, I would like to make a pause, to start again the voyage from earth to heaven.” Scheffer cuts to the end of the Ruhevoll, then to workmen putting away the tympani.  Abbado finds (through feverish strains of the Ninth) “no limit to the fantasy of Mahler, always something new – even a few lines of Mahler.” Haitink says of Mahler that “he had a talent for suffering, for fighting. He died very tragically, far too young. He had a difficult time in America, and he came back home to die. He was a tragic man, and we hear the suffering in his music.” Cut to the A Minor Symphony. Trumpets and stretti strings, Alma’s theme floating diaphanously in space. Finally, Simon Rattle rehearsing the E Minor Seventh in Amsterdam. He calls it “a musical problem, taking a number of things to a further point than they’ve been to before. Do we take these things seriously or taken at a distance? This ambivalence is so very modern. The C Major episode is tragic, an empire coming to an end, schizophrenic.”

The scale increases with Chailly’s rehearsing the Eighth, the supreme, theatrical “opera” in Mahler’s output . Chailly calls the Eighth “the most romantic piece he ever composed.” Levitation, rising from the earth, is the effect Chailly craves from dynamic adjustments involving strings, horns, and harps.  The camera cuts to historic footage of Gustav and Alma Mahler in the Italian Alps. Alma, his “Beatrice,” as Chailly calls her, the love-muse for the Eighth Symphony, then cutting to the actual performance with full chorus, soli, and orchestra. The film cross-cuts rehearsal and performance; Chailly at rehearsal claims, “We’re getting closer. . .”  Chailly expounds on the Freudian sexual aspects of Mahler’s relationship to Alma: “he wanted to be above the crisis.”  Abbado says, “Mahler was in love, but she [Alma] didn’t understand him.” Agonized chords from the Ninth, yearning for transcendence. “O beauty! Love!” etched into the score. The strings try to synchronize their bowing to produce the most ethereal of diminuendi.

Haitink muses on Mahler’s mortality while we hear strains from Das Lied von der Erde.  “A hothouse of emotions,” Haitink quips, “from the standpoint of European ideas, also, one has to see Mahler.” Cut to Thomas Hampson and the flute of eternity. For the Tenth Symphony Adagio fragment, “Humanity dissolves into the air. . .is it a consolation?” queries Haitink. “It has a Bruckner-like texture, ending vaguely, disappearing into the blue of the sky. . .lonesomeness. . .nothing to do with Nature.”  The camera reaches into the burnished wood of the violins.  Heartbreak. A sinewy melodic line anticipates Berg. “So modern for the time, the ideas and dissonances,” asserts Abbado. “He would have already reached the twelve-tone system by himself, were there an Eleventh Symphony.”  Chailly thinks the last glissando indicate Mahler’s agony; he was not ready to die, for the great departure.  The picture of Mahler fades out before our eyes. “Live for you!  Die for you!  My Alma.” Wonderful pictures of the maturing Mahler juxtaposed against the Ruhevoll of the Fourth Symphony.  Filmmaker Scheffer has traversed the cosmos that is Mahler, and we are better for it.

–Gary Lemco

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