My way or the highway!

From the “I know I live in a glass house” file…

A recently released recording of  Mahler’s Second Symphony apparently comes with some rather provacative liner notes from the conductor, which have been widely quoted in the reviews. The quotes alone were enough to get me writing…. I’m sure you all know the conductor I am speaking of, but I honestly don’t want this to be a personal attack on anyone, but a discussion (albeit spirited) of ideas, as I feel the quotes alone, and their use in the media, point to a some fundamental problems in the way we talk about music today, so I’ll leave the conductor out of it and look at the ideas, which I believe are often factually wrong, misrepresented or irrelevant.

This conductor, for instance, claims that he’s breaking new ground in restoring Mahler’s original bowing at the beginning of the second movement of the symphony (the entire phrase in one down bow portato). He apparently states that by restoring Mahler’s long forgotten and lost original bowing, he’s found the key to the tempo of the piece. The conductor’s contention is that (and I paraphrase) one cannot do Mahler’s original bowing in the slow tempo it’s usually heard at these days, which is why all conductors now take it all in separate bows at a much slower tempo.

This contention is so laced with misleading nonsense that I feel I need to break my usual no-slagging-off-other’s-work rule (anyway, I have no opinion on the recording, which I’ve only heard excerpts from, I’m just critiquing the “ideas” put forward in the liner notes).

 First of all, many conductors, including me, use Mahler’s original bowing and always have. It’s not a lost bowing- it’s right in the score, and always has been, and people use it all the time. Second, Mahler’s original bowing does not necessarily dictate a particular tempo- one can take it as slowly as one would wish (espcially if you have a large string section), it just means you’re likely to have to play it softer or with a more focused stroke to save bow. Third, conductors who modify the bowing do not all do it in separate bows- there are many ways to bow the theme, any number of which can be quite true to Mahler’s articulation and phrasing. In different halls, with different groups or with a different sound concept, another bowing may be perfectly justified if it does no violence to what Mahler has asked for. Fourth, it is not entirely clear that Mahler really wanted portato here- he’s less systematic with his use of this kind of articulation marking (dots under a slur) than Beethoven, who _only_ uses that marking for portato (as opposed to staccato under one bow).  One need only look at how the same theme is orchestrated later in the movement when it is written pizzicato to question whether long notes were what he wanted at the beginning. I’m not saying that he meant staccato at the beginning (I think he meant for each of the three statements of the theme to be lighter and shorter than the one before it, culminating in the pizzicato the last time, but I recognize my reading could be wrong), only that there is a very strong argument to be made by those conductors who do play it that way. In any case, it would be an act of radical laziness to base the tempo for an entire movement of a Mahler on a single bowing (the more obvious example of a bowing that really affects the tempo is the spic at figure 3). I take the movement on the faster side, but there are arguments for a range of tempi, all of which should be carefully considered before deciding. After all, although he marks “con moto” (with motion) he also marks “very laid back” and “not rushed.” The indications are contradictory, which means the conductor has to find the right balance of “with motion” but “not rushed.” For different conductors (and listeners) that balance is going to be found at different tempi, but that has nothing to do with the bowing.

If this conductor is somewhat misleading in his analysis of the articulation of the main theme of the second movement- resorting to telling you the reason to listen to his recording is that it corrects some great historical wrong at the hands of an army of lazy and uncomprehending conductors, he turns to telling good old fashioned pork pies when talking about the use of vibrato in Mahler’s time.

I suppose it is possible to contend that Beethoven should be played without any vibrato on the grounds that we cannot prove absolutely that he expected it to be played with any, although I’ve always found that argument simplistic in the extreme. Surely one of the most powerful coloristic tools available to a musician, a tool that is part of the singing traditions of all non-microtonal folk musics, deserves more thoughtful consideration and application than a simple yes or no answer.

However, it is simply not possible to back up a statement as ludicrous as this one-

“pure tone” was “normal with all orchestras until the 1920s. We don’t believe Mahler ever heard a classical orchestra…playing with permanent vibrato.”

in the face of overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary.

There is ample testimony from the musicians who played under Mahler that he felt that vibrato was an essential tool, and that, if anything, he expected more vibrato from string players than may often be used now. In 1964, Herbert Borodkin, violist with the New York Philharmonic from 1904-09, recalled that Mahler “used a lot more vibrato than most conductors do today. He insisted on it. He asked for it. When you played a melodic tune, you would have to use a lot of vibrato and sing, as he called it.” Other colleagues, including Herman Martonne, who knew Mahler’s work in both Vienna and New York said the same thing.

Also, the playing traditions of the world’s orchestras did not suddenly shift all at once- trends come and go, including the use of portamenti, but the tool box stays the same. Orchestras have always been able to vibrate or not vibrate, slide or not slide, play with darker or lighter sounds, and can change gears when asked by a conductor. It would have been impossible for the world’s orchestras to suddenly have started wiggling in the 1920s- vibrato is the most difficult physical skill for string players to master, and it would be inconceivable that grown, professional musicians could have learned it in their 30s, 40s or 50s while managing the demands of a professional life. Vibrato is like a language- you’re best advised to master it young or it will never sound natural. It’s much easier for an orchestra to stop sliding or stop vibrating than to start, as stopping means you’re not using a skill you have, starting means developing a skill you lack.

Far from restoring Mahler’s music to its original concept, this conductor is instead using, even exploiting, the music to advance his own agenda. He may contend that he is simply rescuing the music from modern performers’ bad habit of simply turning the vibrato hose on full blast and letting it run evenly over every note, but this is, generally speaking, nonsense. There are certainly a few bad apples out there who’ve heard too many Hollywood soundtracks, but to tar all conductors with that brush is completely dishonest. Conductors and instrumentalists all spend years developing their own concept of sound, and vibrato is something that all true artists think carefully about. Also, vibrato is not simply something one either uses or doesn’t- there an infinite variety of combinations of depth, speed, quality and fleshiness, each of which can be further shaped by use of the bow. There’s only one kind of off, but a million kinds of on.

Although we’re not lucky enough to have recordings of Mahler conducting his own music, we do have ample record of his friends, assistants and pupils doing so, including Mengleberg, Walter, Klemperer and Fried. I’ve read one review of this new recording which intimated that somehow this maestro had saved us from the “thunderous grandeur” of Klemperer’s recording. I’m not a huge fan of the Klemperer/Philharmonia disc because of the many ensemble problems and wrong rhythms, but it’s actually one of the fastest and least self-indulgent recordings of the piece (and one of the very few that fits on a single CD). If you want grandeur, call Lenny- Klemperer is much more austere and straight-ahead.  One thing worth mentioning about all of these conductor’s recordings of Mahler’s music is that they all use vibrato. Would all of his students and assistants, who revered him over any other musician they’d ever known, really discard Mahler’s own concept of orchestral sound so callously?

One of the nice little bonuses of having conducted a Mahler symphony is that you can then at least say- “I do it this way as opposed to that way.” You’ve earned the right to disagree with the Bernstein’s and the Walter’s and the Kubelik’s, but it is distinctly poor form to represent oneself as a valiant knight dashing in to save the music from the mistreatment it has received at the hands of others. Presenting the idea of “adhering strictly to the tempo markings and the detailed instructions that litter the score” as some kind of a departure from what everyone else has been doing is really beyond the pale. Are we really to believe that other conductors with a lifetime’s experience in Mahler’s music are wilfully ignoring Mahler’s markings? 

I take the basic march tempo of the first movement of Mahler 2 much quicker than Bernstein’s, closer to the tempo Abbado takes, but I do much more accelerando in the development than Abbado does, but those similarities and differences are just that- similarities and differences, and are totally irrelevant to an evaluation of my performance or anyone else’s, just as they were irrelevant to my decisions. Our work can only be reasonably evaluated in terms of Mahler’s score, not by comparison of one to another. Again, when we look at the recordings of Mahler’s immediate disciples, it is striking how strongly their individual personalities come through in spite of their overwhelmingly faithful readings of the score. Mahler understood this- he is not after the imitation of one ideal performance, but is after a truthful and honest reading of the score, and the definition of truthful and honest will always evolve, because every time you return to the score, you come with new skills and experience.

There are two kinds of bad performance practice- imitation and deviation, because in both instances a performance is being shaped in terms of a prior performance. This conductor claims to be practicing both- imitation of Mahler’s ideal and deviation from the “bad” performances of modern times. However, the evidence indicates that he is deviating from Mahler’s idea, and that therefore, the “bad” modern performances are in all likelhood closer to Mahler’s idea than his.

On the other hand, good performance practice is that which is not based on prior performance, but on the score. Perhaps some dislike this, because this kind of approach doesn’t allow you a sonic model to compare one performance to another, but it means that each performance must be taken on its own intrinsic merits.

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods 

PS- None of this really scratches the surface of the real performance practice issues with Mahler. We haven’t talked about what kind of brass instruments Mahler was used to and how they differed from some used today, we haven’t talke about gut versus steel strings, we haven’t talked about slides, different reed making approaches, wooden versus metal flutes, leather versus synthetic timp heads, different seating arrangements……

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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6 comments on “My way or the highway!”

  1. Erik K

    I don’t know a lot about the way kids on the internet talk nowadays, but the one i actually do know can be absolutely perfectly applied to this post.


    oh my lord. is it bad that i actually want to hear this recording simply because how awful it’s going to be?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hey Erik

    good to hear from you!

    Has he aslo recorded Mahler 2? I thought He did more early music stuff? Is his appoach similar to the conductor I wrote about yesterday?


  3. Erik K

    HA! my apologies. it should be interesting to hear, no doubt.

  4. GUY

    hi kENNETH


  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi guy

    Have no fear- first finger in half position and first position on the A-string is the nastiest spot on the cello for vibrato. I found it helpful to bring my left elbow up and back if I’m sitting on a first finger b-flat for a long time- what my teacher called “bow and arrow position” (ie the left arm is back as if pulling the bowstring back (we’re talking archery, not cello bows)

    Anyway, thanks for the note and for your interest and best of luck with your playing


  6. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » 400 Posts- how much could I have gotten done with that time?

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