Archive for Gustav Mahler


Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on May 20, 2014 by telescoper

For my second experience of this year’s Brighton Festival I went last night to the Brighton Dome Concert Hall to see a show called KlezMahler. I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for when I turned up but it turned out to be great fun and I’m glad I went.

The first half of the concert featured the Aurora Orchestra. Their main item was Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler. I’ve heard this symphony played live before, but not quite like this. The Aurora Orchestra numbers only fifteen musicians: two violins, and one each of viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, timpani and percussion. The arrangement for this “Chamber Orchestra” was done by Ian Farrington.

The result was fascinating and illuminating. Gone of course were the lush string textures and towering crescendi of a full symphony orchestra. A small force simply can’t hope to generate that kind of experience. On the other hand, what one gets in compensation is the ability to hear much more clearly how the piece is put together because everything is so much crisper. It must be very demanding to play a symphony like this, as each invidual instrument is very exposed, but these musicians have a very good account of the work. In places I found myself uncomfortable with the balance between different sections and the lack of oomph sometimes made it all sound rather tinny, but by and large I found it very interesting. I still prefer the bigger orchestral sound, but I did learn a lot from this “Mahler Light” arrangement. It was, however, a bit like being presented with an X-ray when you thought you were going to get a photograph!

The third movement of Mahler’s first symphony includes a section in which he produces the sound of a Jewish Klezmer band, which gives a hint as to how this piece fits in with the rest of the programme. Preceding Mahler 1 in the first half of the concert was a piece for solo clarinet (Fantasie by Widmann) and a traditional Doina from Romania (a form of improvised funereal lament) again played on a solo clarinet, this time situated offstage in the circle. The latter piece was particularly moving and well played.

After the interval we heard the She’Koyokh Klezmer Music Ensemble, who treated us to some traditional Klezmer music as well as other folk music from Eastern Europe. In fact their opening number, if I recall correctly, was from Turkey and it featured the very distinctive vocal style of Sigem Aslan. They played with great veuve and vitality and not inconsiderable virtuosity too. There was even an audience singalong in the middle. Some way into their set they were joined by members of the Aurora Orchestra. I felt that adding more musicians had the effect of somehow diffusing the impact of the original band, giving it a little less bite. That’s not to say however that the music wasn’t enjoyable because it certainly was!

There’s a taster of their style on this video:

It’s probably now obvious what the idea behind the concert was. Here it is as stated in the programme:

Iain Farrington’s dazzling chamber orchestra arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, placed alongside a selection of klezmer and folk music performed by members of Aurora and She’koyokh, reveals the musical influences and inspirations behind Mahler’s masterpiece with new clarity. This will be an evening of insight and inspiration, eloquence and exuberance.

For my money it certainly succeeded in its aim. Bravo KlezMahler!


Incidentally, as a Jazz fan, I’ve often wondered about the influence that Klezmer might have had on the musical development of clarinettists like Benny Goodman. Here’s an example of his playing when he was young:

The opening of this does sound to me very Klezmery. What do you think?



R.I.P. Claudio Abbado

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on January 20, 2014 by telescoper

I’ve just heard the very sad news that the great Italian conductor Claudio Abbado has passed away at the age of 80. No words of mine can pay adequate tribute to his wonderful career. He leaves a rich legacy of recordings which can speak more eloquently than I could ever do and he will live on through them and through the memories of those who attended live performances he conducted. Here is a superb example, a recording of  a sublime performance one of the five Rückert-Lieder by Gustav Mahler (“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen“) featuring the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Abbado’s direction, and the gorgeous voice of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená. Rest in peace, Maestro Claudio Abbado.

Haydn and Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on April 21, 2012 by telescoper

Returning from my travels I thought it was a good plan to make the most of the many opportunities Cardiff presents for listening to live music by going to last night’s concert at St David’s Hall. In there’s a considerable flurry of activity in the music scene over the next few weeks so if I can find the time during the flurry of work that will happen simultaneously then I’ll probably be doing quite a lot of concert-going (and blogging). I’m particularly looking forward to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival which offers a much more daring selection of music than the rather conservative fare on offer at St David’s.

Anyway, last night’s concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales began with Symphony No. 104 (“London”) by Joseph Haydn, the last symphony he ever wrote. It’s very typically Haydn, beautifully crafted in a straightforward, middle-of-the-road kind of way. Under the direction of conductor Thierry Fischer the Orchestra gave a polished performance of what is a familiar favourite. Like the other Haydn symphonies I’ve heard (which isn’t all that many actually), I found it quite enjoyable but rather unadventurous. For all that I admire the way it fits together so beautifully, his music is a bit too “safe” for my liking. I found it all a bit trite, I’m afraid.

The audience was rather sparse for the Haydn, but after the interval it filled up with a lot of young people, presumably music students. A number of them had A4 pads at the ready, which made me conjecture that Mahler might be on the examination syllabus this year. In fact when I booked a ticket, most of the stalls area showed up as taken. As usual, however, most of the capacity was given to BBC employees rather than sold to the public. When I went to collect my ticket before the performance, there was a problem printing it out so I had to get someone to write one out by hand. When she started she asked “Are you with the BBC, or did you actually pay?” Often the recipients of this largesse don’t bother to turn up, which makes for flat atmosphere during the performance. It can’t be fun for the performers to see swathes of empty seats in front of them.

Anyway, as I said, after the interval the hall was much fuller, as was the stage as Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler requires a much larger orchestra than the Haydn piece, although not as large as some of Mahler’s other works. Symphony No. 4 is one of the most accessible of Mahler’s works, which is not to say that it’s particularly simple from a compositional point of view; its shifting tonality contrasts markedly with the static feel of the Haydn work we heard earlier. There’s also much less angst in this Symphony than you get with other Mahler symphonies. Although it has its tempestuous passages, the prevailing atmosphere is one of an almost childlike tenderness and there are moments of radiant beauty. Often in Mahler the light merely serves to make the shadows darker, but not in this piece. It’s wonderful.

I particularly enjoyed the restful 3rd movement, starting with cellos and plucked basses and gradually expanding to incorporate the entire orchestra, it slowly swings between sadness and consolation.The last movement, based on an extended setting of the Song Das himmlische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, depicting a child’s version of Paradise, beautifully sung last night by soprano Lisa Milne. It’s a far more satisfactory conclusion than most romantic symphonies from a structural point of view, as well as being a wonderful thing to listen to in itself.

Although both symphonies consist of four movements, the Mahler (58 mins) is almost exactly twice as long as the Haydn (29 mins). But that’s not the point. There’s just so much more going on in the Mahler, both inside the music and in its emotional impact. Haydn entertained me, but Mahler moves me. I could summarize the difference by suggesting that Haydn was a craftsman and Mahler was an artist.


Ein deutsches Requiem

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on October 29, 2011 by telescoper

Last night was time for another injection of culture, so I went again to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a programme of music played by the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera conducted by musical director Lothar Koenigs.

The first item on the programme was the set of five Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler, settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert drawn from a huge collection of tragic verse the poet produced in reaction to the death of his children from scarlet fever. Mahler’s daughter Maria herself suffered the same fate in 1909, four years after the first performance of the Kindertotenlieder. Of course these works are immensely poignant, but the pervading atmosphere is not just of  melancholy but also of resignation. The soloist last night was mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly who gave a performance of great dignity and emotional power. She has a simply gorgeous voice, with lovely velvety chest tones as well as strength and clarity in the upper register. She looked the part too, her facial expressions adding to the sense of tragedy underlying the music. One for Mahler fans only, I suspect, but I loved it.

The next piece before the interval was quite new to me, A Survivor from Warsaw, written by Arnold Schoenberg in 1947 as a reaction to the persecution of jews in the Warsaw ghetto. In addition to the orchestra this work features a male chorus and a narrator (WNO regular David Soar) who recounts the story of a massacre in the declamatory Sprechstimme that Schoenberg used in several works. I was surprised to learn from the programme that the narration was actually written in English (as it was performed last night), but I don’t think the texture of the English language really suits this style of vocalisation. The male chorus sings a setting of the Shema Yisrael amidst sounds representing the violence of the attacking soldiers. The music is rigorously atonal: disturbing, agonized and entirely appropriate to the subject. Not exactly easy listening, but why on Earth should it be?

After the interval we heard the main piece of the evening, Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) by Johannes Brahms. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know that I’m not exactly a devout follower of Brahms, but he is a composer I somehow feel I ought to persevere with. The German Requiem is, like the preceding pieces, a reaction to loss; in this case it was probably the deaths of Brahms’ mother and of his friend Robert Schumman that led Brahms to compose the work. It’s not a traditional Requiem, in the sense of being a liturgical setting, but it does take its text from the scriptures. It’s also a very large work, comprising seven movements lasting well over an hour altogether, and is Brahms’ longest composition. Soloists were David Soar (bass-baritone) and Laura Mitchell (soprano); the latter wore a white dress and black shoes to the consternation of the fashion-conscious members of the audience. Apparently that’s a no-no.

This is not a work that I’m familiar with amd it’s such a long piece that it’s difficult to take it all in during one performance. Inevitably, therefore, there are parts that stand out in my memory better than others. The orchestral playing was very tight, full of colour, and never lost momentum. However, I would say that the Chorus of Welsh National Opera were absolutely magnificent; the dramatic intensity they achieved during the crescendi in the 2nd movement (Denn alles Fleisch, with text drawn from Psalm 126) definitely raised the hairs on the back of my neck. That alone was enough to make me want to listen to this again.  I’d therefore like to ask any readers of this blog please to help by suggesting good recordings of this work through the Comments box.

Here’s a version of the 2nd Movement I found on youtube, just to give you an idea of its sombre majesty, but last night’s rendition was better. Try to imagine what the crescendo that grows from about 3.00 sounds like live…

Der Abschied

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on May 18, 2011 by telescoper

A little dickie bird (or, more accurately, quite a large one with impressive plumage) emailed me to point out that today, 18th May 2011, is the 100th anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler. I couldn’t let the date go unmarked, so thought I’d post something here. I couldn’t decide which of two bits to put up, so decided to go with them both.

Although it’s long (and I don’t really like posting segments of things) it seemed appropriate to offer Der Abschied (“The Farewell”), the last movement from Das Lied von der Erde. I picked this version, featuring the legendary mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig.

Incidentally, Das Lied von der Erde is a symphony and it was written by Mahler after the 8th Symphony. However, it isn’t the 9th Symphony, which is a different work, or indeed the 10th which was unfinished at Mahler’s death and which I heard here in Cardiff recently.

If you haven’t got time to listen to all of that one, try this remarkable recording instead. It’s Urlicht, one of the songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn which appears in Mahler’s 2nd Symphony (“The Resurrection”), sung by the late Maureen Forrester (contralto) and conducted by none other than a (very young) Glenn Gould.


Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

Posted in Music with tags , , , on January 3, 2011 by telescoper

The last day of the winter break has arrived, in the form of a bank holiday Monday in lieu of New Year’s Day which this year happened on a Saturday. It has also started snowing again. I’m determined to get all the rest and recuperation I can get before starting back at work so instead of posting anything strenuous I thought I’d put up this wonderful piece of music.

This is the third and undoubtedly the most famous song in Gustav Mahler‘s cycle of five Rückert Lieder, settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert. Perhaps the best known version of this is the marvellous recording mezzo Dame Janet Baker made in the 1960s with Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra, which I listen to over and over again. It is also to be heard in a version with piano rather than orchestral accompaniment, and sometimes with male rather than female vocalist. I firmly prefer the orchestral setting, however.

The German text of this poem reads

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

As always with poetry, it’s not easy to translate, but a reasonable English version is

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

Although I only did one year of German at school, I think “I have become a stranger to the world” is a better version of the first line; it scans better, at least. Nevertheless, the gist of it is that the poet is celebrating his escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Because it’s about solitude  people tend to assume that it’s a sad song. I don’t think of it like that at all. I’m sure artists, musicians, poets, and even – dare I say it – scientists, all experience times when they’re so focussed on what they’re doing that nothing else seems to matter. Solitude is then not to do with loneliness or sadness, but with self-fulfilment.

This is what Mahler’s music seems to me to convey anyway. For me it’s one of the most joyful pieces of music he ever wrote, although, as is inevitable with Mahler, whenever there’s radiance you know that darkness is never far away. He seems to know exactly how to trigger the deepest emotional response, by introducing those shadowy undercurrents. Gets me every time.

This performance, which I chanced upon on Youtube,  has  a strong local connection. I don’t know where the performance took place, but the conductor is Carlo Rizzi who was conductor of the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera until 2007, and the mezzo soprano vocalist is Katarina Karnéus, who won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1995 and  performed in Mahler’s Third Symphony in Cardiff last year. There’s just a chance, therefore, that this recording was made in St David’s Hall. Wherever it was, I think this is a lovely performance,  to see as well as hear.

If there is a more beautiful piece of music than this, I’d really love to hear it.



Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 14

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on February 10, 2010 by telescoper

Looking at my copy of this month’s Gramophone magazine reminded me that this year, 2010, sees the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Gustav Mahler (born 7th July 1860). However, the front cover of the special celebratory issue of the esteemed organ that this event inspired features a photograph that reveals something of a  likeness to Professor Ian Smail, another noted individual (geddit?) … though, perhaps, one not always known for his harmoniousness.

Gustav Mahler

Professor Ian Smail