Simon Rattle conducts Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

02 Jun 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Alban Berg
    Three Pieces for orchestra, op. 6 (22 min.)

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 6 (90 min.)

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle on the Berliner Philharmoniker’s 2011/2012 season (11 min.)

More often than not, concerts where Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker perform Mahler’s Sixth Symphony are of special significance: Rattle made his debut with the orchestra with this work in November 1987, and when the Berliner and Wiener Philharmoniker, under the baton of Sir Simon, performed together for the first (and so far only) time, the Sixth was in the concert programme. The recording presented here documents a performance from 2011.

This may be no coincidence as this symphony reveals the capabilities of not only the orchestra but also the conductor more than almost any other work. In his orchestration, Mahler takes things further than anything that came before, such as can be heard in the finale with its legendary blows from a hammer. But also in terms of intensity of expression, Mahler demands everything from his interpreters. Although the Sixth has become known as the “Tragic”, it lacks any mawkishness. What stands out more are the moments of utter, raw violence which Mahler uses to reflect the brutality of the looming 20th century.

Simon Rattle himself explains the connection with Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra Op. 6 in this concert as follows: “It seemed to me obvious that Berg’s Three Pieces is somehow the child of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. In fact, John Adams said wonderfully he felt he’d heard the Mahler Sixth Symphony put in a trash compactor, so that actually everything was there, but in a much smaller space, in fact less than 20 minutes, with all the lines crammed together instead of being one after another.”

The Berliner Philharmoniker play works by Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler

It never ceases to amaze us that the composer of Wozzeck and Lulu committed to paper only a single large orchestral work. Some would ask how a musical architect of Alban Berg’s enormous intellectual potential could have been satisfied with that. Perhaps the symphonic writing in his music-theatre works was enough. Another explanation may be sought in Berg’s circumspection, in his feeling that no work would ultimately satisfy his own aesthetic standards. For example, his expressionistically tinged Three Pieces for Orchestra Op. 6, was composed between 1913 and 1915 but thoroughly revised some 15 years later. But first things first.

Hardly had he completed his studies with Arnold Schoenberg when Berg set off for new symphonic shores. The journey proved so rocky that he aborted it. Yet the effort had not been in vain: in both Wozzeck and soon after in the first completed version of the Three Pieces, fragments and episodes of the originally announced work are detectible. Especially in the opening “Prelude” (Präludium), the composer made “much use of the symphony begun last year in Trahütten”, as he indicated in a letter. But, he continues, “it was not to be. Nothing came of it beyond the ‘Präludium’. And so, instead of the symphony, it will introduce the Orchestral Pieces.”

Berg called the score of the Three Pieces for Orchestra “the most complicated ever written”. What is suggested in the hyper-sensitive opening movement is further concentrated into absolute certainty in the second, a “Round Dance” (Reigen). The composer’s own all-too laconic description is that of “a very delicate, but also light-hearted piece of dance-like character”. Formally, at least, there is evidence to support the claim: this is a modified sonata scherzo, although its sequencing completely upends traditional articulation. The unfolding of the three formal blocks – introduction, main section and waltz with development-reprise – actually takes place, but in reverse order. In other words, the quintessence of the movement is heard before the theme that gives rise to it.

The “March” (Marsch) seems, at least in its formal articulation, to be more transparent. It is a genuine character piece, as Schoenberg had hoped his departing pupil would compose. In this context, Berg acknowledged that his former teacher was indeed the inspiration for his Op. 6, “as much from my hearing his five Op. 16 orchestra pieces (although please note: mine don’t resemble his at all in feeling; they will even be fundamentally different!) as in his cautionary advice to me to write character pieces.”

In adopting the accomplishments of sonata form but lightly varying them, the March suggests a perpetuation of the substance of symphonic tradition. By this point, if not earlier, it has become clear to whom, besides Schoenberg, Berg is paying his respects: to Gustav Mahler. Berg wanted the whole work to sound “as if Schoenberg’s Orchestral Pieces and Mahler’s Ninth were played simultaneously”, but it is in the March that the Mahler connections are clearest. In some of its motivic structures, in rhythmic detail and even in its large-format layout, this movement refers to the Sixth Symphony, which Berg greatly admired. “I don’t need to tell you”, he wrote to Webern, “whose it is. There is only one VIth, despite the Pastoral.”

This A minor tract has justifiably been called the most pessimistic of Mahler’s nine completed symphonies. It is undoubtedly the most uncompromising, and one may even concur with the musicologist Alfred Stenger when he called it “an apotheosis of musical destructiveness”. The first five bars, which lead directly to the main theme, are already a decisive summation, but the four staccato notes in the cellos and basses announce the baleful inexorability of the home key with unsparing candour. Mahler is here expressing something that holds true for the entire work. Again and again these four notes insist upon their right to exist and, with it, the idea that this symphony contains its destiny within itself. There is no escaping it.

Mahler’s Sixth struggles with the world into which it attempts to bore, and despairs over who has the upper hand: life, and with it love, or death, and with it the catastrophe, the Day of Judgement. Someone who recognized the dialectical dimension of the A minor Symphony was Arnold Schoenberg. “Think of the Sixth,” he wrote in 1913, “of the frightful struggle in the first movement. But then, its sorrow-torn upheaval automatically generates its opposite, the unearthly passage with cowbells, whose cool, icy comfort is dispensed from a height attainable only by one who soars to resignation; only he can hear it who understands what heavenly voices whisper without animal warmth.” Even in the Andante moderato, Schoenberg perceived the elusiveness of the musical formulation. “How pure is its tone to one who knows today 1913 that it was not banality which kept it from pleasing, but the strangeness of the emotions of a thoroughly unusual personality which kept it from being understood.”

Does he – the one “not understood” and who perhaps will never really be understood – stride so grimly, decisively and unstoppably through the hills in order at the end to face the catastrophe? Even new Mahler listeners must be struck by how much of the Sixth Symphony is characterized by marches, and how prosaic, even vulgar, they sound in certain passages. Even the waltzes of the Scherzo – in every other symphony of the time, a brief moment to exhale – are depicted here in silhouette. This was apparently an obsession with Mahler, although just why he cultivated it so extensively in the Sixth has not been fully explained (and probably never will be).

The concluding Allegro moderato plays for half an hour (as long as the first two movements together). In its complexity and the centrifugal pull of its elements, it surpasses everything heard before in the symphony. This Finale is a song that can be sung only by one who can understand it in the context of psychic electricity. The late author Hans Wollschläger, who did understand that concept, brilliantly illuminated the point in his Mahler essays Der Andere Stoff with reference to the composer’s complete symphonic oeuvre: “If you regard the sensory images of creation and termination, of becoming and dying, that Mahler’s music conveys to the listening mind along with the fundamental phenomena of his artistic attributes – his polyphony and his unique metatonal harmony – it becomes irrefutably apparent that the chief formative aspect of this music lies in its way of dealing with ‘time’ – indeed, that ‘time’ is one of main sources of perception that informs Mahlers works.”

The Finale tells a story of becoming and dying, and aside from those two extraordinarily strange, seemingly displaced hammer-blows – marked by Mahler in the score “short, loud, but dully resounding ... of non-metallic character (like the stroke of an axe)” – it is told without any dramatization. Only our innermost core is moved, but so strongly that the world begins to totter – the inner becomes the outer.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Richard Evidon

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