“Today” yesterday

First, let me say hello to the many new readers who have found their way here from the BBC after my chat (which you can hear here) with Nicholas Kenyon on yesterday’s Today programme. In that very brief segment, we managed to touch on a few topics very dear to my heart, so let’s follow up a bit.

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

First, on the original question of tempo in the Mahler 5 Scherzo. If you want to read an in depth discussion of the issues we were referring to you might want to check out this blog post, which was the one that inspired Today to do the segment.

The point I was making in that post wasn’t so much that some conductors “race through the movement,” and that this means they’re doing violence to Mahler’s music. Instead, what I find interesting about this particular passage is that it is very typical of the kinds of issues and challenges one encounters when learning and interpreting a work. Very often our first instinct as performers is to do what sounds “best” to our ears, and to do what we think will be most attractive to the listener. Mahler knew that this instinct would drive performers to find a way to play the first 100 or so bars of this long movement in the most attractive and natural sounding way possible.

The only problem is that, as in life, too much focus on immediate satisfaction can lead to long-term disappointment. Imagine a movie in which every character is supposed to be as attractive and likeable as possible, in which every situation is happy and where there is never any tension or conflict. That might work in a 30 second commercial, but not in a 90 minute films. Likewise, a 2 minute pop song can aim only to please, but a 75 minute symphony needs tension, drama, conflict and catharsis to make  a performance pay off.

In this movement, Mahler wants to let a certain amount of tension build in the opening pages.  I referred to the Goethe poem which inspired the Scherzo in my conversation yesterday (you can read it here at the end of the post). The first part of the poem reflects a young man’s impatience with the pace of time, but as the movement unfolds, the mood shifts to heroic striving, earthly temptation, morbid fear of decay, and finally a nihilistic race into the jaws of hell itself- better dead than dying, he seems to say.

“Before the marsh-mist envelopes me in my old age,

with tootless gnashing jaws and tottering limbs

Snatch me, drunk with the sun’s last ray,

a sea of fire boiling up before my eyes,

blind and reeling through the dark gates of Hell.”

Good poet, that Goethe chap.

The music of the opening is in the style of a Landler, which is a country dance in a moderate tempo, with three impulses or beats per bar- taken at that speed, you get that sense of frustration and impatience Mahler was after. Later in the movement, there is a waltz which starts slowly (much like the great Strauss waltzes) and finally works itself into a frenzy. The point of which is simply to say that the question is not whether one takes “the movement” too fast or too slow, but how successfully one is able to differentiate the dozens and dozens of tempos within the movement so that the whole thing has a powerful impact. It is a long movement and is very episodic- it is easy to lose the audience’s attention. The danger of starting in the quicker tempo is that it can homogenize the music to the point that the audience gets to the end thinking “ gosh, that could have been ten minutes shorter.”

In fact, the Lenny recording we used as an example of a slow opening ends at blazing speed.

The point is not whether any conductor is right or wrong to take a specific tempo, or whether we have latitude as interpreters. Instead, this is just a simple, rather obvious, example of an instance where what makes sense when you look at a passage in isolation could lead you to a performance of a whole work that is less gripping and exciting that it could be. It has nothing to do with respecting the text versus creativity, and instead to do with effectiveness. This movement can easily fall flat in performance- this was Mahler’s concern when he made that statement about conductors taking it too fast. It’s not that he wants to control the performer, but that he, as a great composer and performer, has a sense of the traps and pitfalls one could fall into.

Mr Kenyon mentioned Mahler’s “neurotic” nature as manifest in his use of extensive markings and re-editings of his music and that of other composers. Having conducted his music for many years, and conducted and studied his re-touchen of several works such as Beethoven 9, Schumann 3 and the Death and the Maiden Quartet, I can tell you with all honesty that Mahler’s notation is always practical and logical, and that his changes to his own scores always reflect what he himself learned in preparing and performing his own music. Mahler was not some worry-obsessed Woody Allen character pacing his flat worrying that the E-flat clarinet player might not be heard on page 23 unless he changed the ff to fff. Mahler knew, from the basis of his own experience, what the challenges and difficulties of the parts were, and kept striving to make his music as performable as possible. The markings are not there because he was insecure or controlling. They’re simply there because they save time and they work- opening a Mahler score for a conductor is like getting the greatest lesson of your life and like being analyzed by Freud himself. With hindsight, I can look at almost every change and revision in the last versions of his scores and see the reasoning and the improvement over the original versions.

What the conversation most underlined for me, however, is a pervasive misunderstanding about interpretation. The questions before us seemed to be these- do performers really have to obey all those markings in the score? Doesn’t that just limit their creativity and don’t audiences really prefer performers who let their own personalities come through?

This discussion has been going on for hundreds of years, and I can certainly remember being a young musician and bridling at the notion that anyone could claim my tempo for this or that piece was wrong because it was different to the metronome marking. I knew how I felt it should go! To a large extent, I think this mindset comes from learning music from recordings, but that’s a topic for another day.

What I’ve learned through a lot of trial and error is that one learns so much more from engaging really deeply with the text. It’s not about obeying instructions, but learning from them. There is so much you can learn from a metronome marking that doesn’t limit one to an exact tempo, such as the unit of pulse (how many impulses are felt in each bar), or the relation of tempos between movements and sections. For instance, for many years, most conductors took the last movement of Beethoven 5 in a faster pulse  than the 3rd movement, but, Beethoven’s metronome markings tell us the opposite- he says clearly the half-note in the Finale should be slower than the dotted- half in the Scherzo. I think that’s interesting, and might be useful to keep in mind even if I take a tempo that’s a little faster or slower than his suggested ones.

But, more important is what I tried to work in at the very end. I really feel that the more I try to learn scores properly and to engage with the text and the more I try to understand why a composer like Mahler or Beethoven or Elgar has made the choices they have, the more vivid and distinctive my own performing personality becomes. I really believe that every time you engage with a piece of information in the score- a dynamic or an articulation or a tempo marking- your own personality comes through more, not less. For me interpretation is not me looking at a score and deciding how I think it should go, it is me looking at a score and trying to understand why everything that is on the page is there. It’s not about obeying intentions, but about comprehending the music. When you’ve gone through that process, you have begun to really hear the score. You don’t have to “decide” how you like it, nor are you worried about how the audience will like it- you hear it with a clarity that allows you to go into rehearsal or performance and respond to the musicians and the hall and create a performance.

Take, for example, old Lenny Bernstein. Nobody every accused him of lacking personality, or of being afraid to take risks as a performer. However, he was a highly analytical musician whose score preparation was very, very detail oriented. One of my old friends in the Chicago Symphony said his few visits to the CSO in his last years were the highlight of her 30 years there. I asked why. “He knew the scores better and in more detail than anybody I ever played for” she answered with out hesitation.

If you follow his Mahler recordings with the score, you can see how incredibly attentive to detail he was.  A lot of those “Lenny-isms” turn out to be very directly connected to Mahler’s own markings and suggestions- some of the very things I’ve heard critics write off as wilful Lenny indulging his ego are right there in the score. Of course, like all of us, some things he changes, some he misses out and some he adds, but his Mahler can sound both eccentric and thrilling because he’s so sensitive to what Mahler wrote. The more Mahler Bernstein absorbed, the more Lenny comes through. The same can be said of Ben Zander’s recording that we used in that segment- he is so attentive almost every detail in Mahler’s score, yet comes up with a completely different, and equally personal performance. Name any of the great Mahler interpreters and you’ll find something similar- the performances that really feel imaginative, distinctive and convincing are the ones where the performers are the most invested in the text. It’s not a moral thing, it’s a practical thing.

On the other hand, when I hear a performance by conductor who seems a little too quick to dismiss the value of all that detail, what I get is a forgettable performance. I don’t get the sense of more personality, I get the sense of no personality. . Copying a performance from a recording has the same effect- copy a memorable and distinctive performance from a CD and you always get something plastic and forgettable. All of the conductors Nicholas mentioned- Gergiev, Jansons, et al- you wouldn’t know of any of them if they weren’t wrestling with these very questions themselves.

When we engage with a score and really try to understand it, we get performances that are more unique, more memorable, more distinctive and more individual. Mahler wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Huge kudos to Radio 4 for putting Mahler front and centre and talking about art and music in a general news show!

More on this topic in a series from a few years ago-

Score studying or ……

Score Questioning- The Practical

Score Questioning- Getting to “How”

Score Questioning- Getting to “How”Score Questioning- How the old school got to “how”

Score Questioning- the quest for understanding

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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 www.kennethwoods.net

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