Any regular reader of this blog will have realized that I, like many people, like the music of Gustav Mahler. A lot….
It has occurred to me this week, however, that I could make the perverse case that, much as I am totally thrilled to be doing Das Lied von der Erde this week, it may actually be more fun to rehearse Haydn than Mahler….Of course, there are advantages to doing Mahler. Generally speaking, and not casting aspersions on anyone here, there are some instrumentalists in the world who think they can sight read Haydn symphonies, which is an almost completely inaccurate notion. Almost nobody makes that mistake with Strauss and Mahler. Mahler’s music seems to bring the best out of musicians everywhere I go.
On the other hand, Mahler has done so much of the work for you as a conductor that there is somewhat less room for discovery than in other repertoire. In fact, I’ve been quite surprised in this piece (Das Lied) that there are only rather small variances between the many performances I’ve heard. Not true with Haydn. The extremely intense notation Mahler uses in this piece taxes everyone’s brains to their utmost- it’s harder to find moments where the players or the conductor can take the initiative to do something surprising or interesting (harder by not impossible).
As I’ve written before, Mahler makes everyone’s job easy– if you do what he tells you to, it will sound magnificent, and he leaves nothing to chance. The only problem is that what he tells you to do challenges every musician.
Bernstein once said that the most logical, and probably the best way to conduct Mahler’s music would be to stand very still and simply beat time in the simplest way possible, but that he couldn’t do it. I’m learning what he meant with both halves of that statement- Das Lied is so emotional that part of me wants to conduct it like Tchaikowsky, but it’s too musically complex to withstand any fooling around. Its so musically complex that one is tempted to just do your best Boulez impersonation (I love Boulez, by the way, that’s not a dig), but I can’t, and I don’t think Mahler wanted me to. Everyone has to sit on a knife edge of concentration and passion- measuring out a perfect mixture like gas and oxygen in a car. Too much or not enough of either, and nothing moves. This is not as much a problem in earlier works- there are plenty of places in the 2nd Symphony for instance, where you can throw caution to the wind, and pretty much have to.
So, Haydn- More Fun than Mahler!
Well not really….. I just wish we could all approach Haydn more like Mahler- with more of the awe, more of the humility and more of the passion, and Mahler more like Haydn- asking more questions, taking more risks, challenging more assumptions. Maybe even having more fun?
c. 2007 Kenneth Woods