There are some pieces of music which are widely misunderstood because they’re too popular. I had a “teacher” in grad school who taught the History of Opera course who thought Puccini was an idiot because he was popular, and that we should all be listening to Pfitzner every day. Nothing against Pfitzner, but Puccini was not the idiot in that scenario.
Then there’s the “I played it youth orchestra so it must not be that good” effect. Some of the first pieces I played as a kid were the last ones I “got” as an adult.
Wagner’s personality can be a barrier for some listeners, Strauss’s for others. Shostakovich’s music continues to be misunderstood by many because some scholars can’t let go of the political baggage of the Cold War. All kinds of pieces have “stuff” attached to them, and Kindertotenlieder has its own baggage, which is that many can’t get past they’re discomfort with the subject matter. I think a lot of that discomfort is misdirected, and part of my intent with this series is to help listeners understand what the piece is really about. Today, on the other hand, I’m reminded of the wise words of a teacher (as opposed to “teacher”) in grad school, a wonderful professor of analysis named Brian Hyer- ”We play tunes because they’re cool.” Deeper messages aside, KTL is a collection of very cool tunes. I thought I’d just touch briefly on two little random memories of our work on this performance.
I tend not to study scores at the piano all that much, and, as it happened, on this occasion I hadn’t used the piano at all. However, when I got to Toluca we arranged a piano rehearsal with Jesus and me. In this movement in particular, I was completely surprised at what a different piece it is without the orchestra. I shouldn’t have been so surprised- if you look at the notes on the page, you can see that these songs are a bit special even by Mahler’s standards.
You may remember in my comments on Nun will die Sonn’ that I talked about how sparseness of texture is a particular feature of the songs, and about how this enables each note and each interval to really have an impact. One of the other results of this lean approach is that the harmony in these songs is rather more acidic than is typical in Mahler. So acidic, in fact, that Mahler often uses the warmth of the orchestra sound to soften the rather hard harmonic corners. When we read the songs with piano, I was really struck at just how modern, how dissonant and how acidic these songs, and particularly this song, are. Listeners will often hear musicians describe how performing conditions can affect a performance. More often than not, what musicians are talking about the acoustics of the hall- reverberant rooms mean you have to play drier, dry rooms mean you need to play more sustained, some halls tend to make the brass overpowering, others the low strings muddy.
As we prepared this concert, it quickly became apparent that a much more unusual factor was in play. Toluca is at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, which makes it one of the highest concert venues in the world- higher even than Aspen. Higher altitudes mean thinner air, and thinner air means breathing is harder work, which is bad news for wind players, and really bad news for singers. Jesus came from his home, which is at sea-level, and although he had sung in Toluca many times, he told me on day one that the thin air there always made for a struggle.
Singers have two main tools for shaping their performance- text and breathing. Conductors have two main tools for shaping their interpretation- balance and tempo. High altitude is bound to bring breathing and tempo into conflict. Now, a great singer becomes so artful in working around problems caused by altitude that almost nobody onstage or in the audience would ever know what was going on. On top of this, a professional singer has reserves of breathing capacity more than adequate to compensate for high altitude. Jesus had a very few requests for me of places it would be helpful to keep things flowing along, but those were all places were we would both have wanted to do that anyway for purely music reasons.
However, Mahler being Mahler, there are always places were he makes demands that would test any performer under the most ideal circumstances, and there are spots in KTL where you could never have enough breath, where Mahler asks the singer to spin out an impossibly long line. One such place occurs in this song- Jesus and I talked about it in that first piano rehearsal, but singing with piano takes even less air than with orchestra. Once we started working with the orchestra we tried to find a way to get through the spot in question in one breath while allowing the music all the spaciousness Mahler asks. I should point out that this spot is one were over half the studio recordings I own have an extra breath, so this was a matter of Jesus setting the highest possible standards for himself under the most difficult conditions.
As it turned out, in the concert maybe I took a bit too much time, maybe the absorbent effect of 2000 people in the hall meant he had to use even a bit more air than in the rehearsals, maybe it was just a bit of caution by a master performer not to jeopardize the whole song for one subtle touch that nobody would notice, but Jesus took the extra breath.
The next day in Mexico City, down just a little bit to 7,400 feet elevation, he soared through the spot in one breath without problem. Of course, I’m not saying where the spot is- the fact that many of you didn’t notice it when you listened yesterday is proof that he did the right thing. Have another listen here in WMV, here in QuickTime and here on YouTube.
c. 2007 Kenneth Woods