Sir Simon Rattle conducts Mahler and Rachmaninov

05 Nov 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Sergei Rachmaninov
    Symphonic Dances, op. 45 (39 min.)

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 1 in D major (65 min.)

  • free

    Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony: an introduction by Sir Simon Rattle (10 min.)

Mahler was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote his First Symphony, which makes the masterful way in which he employs such vast orchestral forces all the more surprising. The second work of this evening’s concert contrasts this expression of freshness and new departures: the Symphonic Dances by Sergei Rachmaninoff: the composer’s final work, in which he – while in exile in America – invokes the musical language of his Russian homeland.

Symphonic Masterworks by Composer-Performers

In January 1910 Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninov crossed paths in the American music capital New York. Under the baton of the former Vienna Court Opera director and current New York Philharmonic conductor, the Russian virtuoso played his Third Piano Concerto, which he had given its world premiere (with New York’s other orchestra) only a few weeks earlier. Their joint Philharmonic concert in Carnegie Hall reflected the artistic double life led by both Mahler and Rachmaninov. The two musicians were active not only as composers but also as world-famous performers.

In less than two decades, Mahler had risen from conducting operettas in a small Austrian spa town to become the artistic director of the Vienna opera. As a result of this extraordinary success, most of his contemporaries – at least until the turn of the century – regarded him as a conductor who also composed rather than as a composer who also conducted, even though he had by that point already written three symphonies and many lieder. Rachmaninov’s early fame was similarly based to a large extent on his career as a performer: with his stupendous technique and warm, flexible tone, he thrilled audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and soon became one of the most sought-after and highly-paid pianists of his time.

A late work – Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances

Reeling from the shock of the October Revolution, Rachmaninov turned his back for ever on his Russian motherland. After nearly a year’s stay in Copenhagen, he eventually settled in the USA, where he spent most of the rest of his life. Although he carried on his piano career with great success in exile, he wrote only six major works there before his death at the end of March 1943. His creativity was probably impacted not only by the loss of his cultural homeland but also by his sense of belonging to a bygone age. Many concertgoers loved Rachmaninov’s expressive, sensuous works and regarded the musical conservative as one of the greatest living composers, but to modernists his musical idiom, rooted in the 19th century, seemed hopelessly antiquated.

The Symphonic Dances op. 45, composed during the summer months of 1940, are Rachmaninov’s final significant orchestral work, a last musical evocation of his cultural and spiritual home. The Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) middle movement belongs to the symphonic waltz tradition going back to Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and also cultivated by Tchaikovsky and Mahler, among others. Rachmaninov’s homage to the most popular dance form of the 19th century is an expressively charged waltz fantasia, alternately dark and menacing, passionately forward-thrusting or melancholy and introspective, passing through varying worlds of sound and expression.

The two outer movements, by contrast, feature reminiscences of his Russian homeland and his own compositions. In the coda of the first movement, the strings take up a lyrical theme whose melodic profile recalls a similar idea in Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. Its accompaniment by piano, harp and glockenspiel evokes the sound of church bells, something the composer loved and associated with his lost homeland: “The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used to know – Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave, and no composer could escape their influence.”

“... a first but not a beginner’s work ...” – Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1

In March 1888, half a century before Rachmaninov would write his Symphonic Dances, Gustav Mahler completed his First Symphony in a burst of creative activity. The 28-year-old composer produced this large-scale work at a time in which he was conducting at the Leipzig opera as a junior colleague of Arthur Nikisch, who later became principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. In bringing off this creative tour de force, he made use of existing musical material: substantial portions of the first and third movements are based on the songs “Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld” and “Die zwei blauen Augen” from his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer; 1884/85). The Ländler-infused scherzo that comes between them reworks thematic material from his early song Hans und Grethe. As the musicologist Paul Bekker wrote in an early study of Mahler’s symphonies, his No. 1 is “a first but not a beginner’s work”. It already exhibits a specifically Mahlerian sound and artistic physiognomy, for example his characteristic way of working with diverse musical idioms and styles, the extreme intensity and incredible variety of expression, the element of discontinuity in his treatment of musical form, and the convergence of symphony and song as seen in the instrumental lied quotations already cited. These features, taken together, accounted for the novelty of Mahler’s symphonic style, as well as explaining the confusion that his music provoked, not only among his contemporaries.

The portion of the symphony that, according to Mahler’s confidante Natalie Bauer-Lechner, was “the most misunderstood and vilified” was the third-movement Funeral March, perhaps the most striking example of the “confusing” originality of his compositional style. The thematic material of the outer sections revolves around the familiar children’s round Frère Jacques, which no contemporary listener would probably have ever imagined confronting in a symphonic work. Mahler, who is said even as a child to have found the tune “deeply tragic”, develops the canon in his symphony, not as a carefree student song, but rather – set in the minor – as a bizarre dirge. Essential components in the ironic distortion are instrumentation and phrasing. Above a muffled oscillating 4th on timpani, the canon is first heard on muted solo double bass playing in an uncomfortably high register and broken up into its melodic segments by caesuras at the end of each bar. It is taken up in turn by bassoon I, by the cello section and by the bass tuba forced, against the grain, to play pianissimo.

On 18 November 1900 Mahler conducted the first Vienna performance of his First Symphony. The violent audience reaction its third movement could still unleash eleven years after its premiere in Budapest was described by the famous Austrian satirist Karl Kraus: “Music cognoscenti grasped the parody and began to laugh. Thereupon, tremendous annoyance among Herr Mahler’s friends, who were of the opinion that it was not proper to laugh at a funeral march. Mahler’s friends therefore tried to hiss the laughers into silence. This, however, was too much for the Mahler foes. Wanting to show that they refused to accept Herr Mahler’s funeral march as serious music, they also laughed in order to deride Herr Mahler. The mockers and admirers of the composer fought bravely on, but the music-lovers who had been the first to laugh did not laugh long. In the noise of battle the amusing sounds emanating from the orchestra could no longer be heard.”

Tobias Bleek
Translation: Richard Evidon

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