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Sunday, 10 February 2013





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The resurrection of Gustav Mahler

There are many music lovers who are not fans of Mahler and I happen to be in that group. But in fairness to this great composer, he is an icon on equal terms with the rest. May be I did not study enough of Mahler's symphonies, but I do have the capacity to sit back and enjoy him being played which is exactly what happened at the Southbank's Royal Festival Hall when his Symphony No. 5 came under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. This season Mahler was a strong favourite with many other conductors too, who took turns to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I also saw some of Mahler's symphonies conducted by Lovin Maazel at the Southbank Centre.

Gustav Mahler whose symphonies are firm favourites with leading orchestras around the world. This season, he is played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.

The virtue of Mahler was that he was passionately convinced that a symphony must be like the world; it must contain everything. Over 100 years after his death, the capacity of his music to address his large following, appears to be growing on and on. What may have fascinated the listeners of his era resonates so powerfully today mixed with a seamless enduring quality and are treasures of a timeless rush everyday.

It is the contemporary time of Mahler's music that remains eloquent. A century gone, but the intensity of our time, is the voice that wrestles the face of the modern world.

I do not know whether it was coincidence when I saw a woman conducting the Royal Festival Hall for the first time. I came to know later that it was one of the world's best. And she was Marin Also who conducted the Orchestra of the Enlightenment and she took over, Mahler's great Resurrection Symphony. She was perfect. She was excellent.


An afternoon focusing on the great masterpiece re-imagined by the illustrious ensemble, that made up Europe's finest young musicians, the Resurrection Symphony was at the height of its playing status. She did not fall short of a male conductor and was vibrant down to the last note. That evening was the day on which I discovered Mahler and the conducting power of a woman. Together, they pushed the boundaries of potential in performance and the youth were in the forefront. This is in the face of the twentieth century and beyond which has been fraught with debate about the worth of classical music.

Mahler fascinates all instrumentalists who are eager to play him. Here two such members from the LPO react to each other in sheer joy.

Some of the conductors felt hostility towards the last century's works. But with great conductors such as Jurowski rescuing and presenting the masters of that era (such as Mahler) he was able to turn around the music scene. It is not only the LPO that is responsible, but other major orchestras around the world contributing to throw light on this dark situation. With its revolutions and counter-revolutions, the major moral and philosophical upheaval have done much to bestow the understanding of music from the point of artistic democracy.

Gustav Mahler is one such composer to emerge triumphant from this unfair situation and since his death in 1911 and 150 years after his death, Mahler performed with gusto around the world's leading concert halls. Considered as the last great Romantic symphonists, his music is accepted on the grandest scale that elaborate and convey lofty concepts of universal art though not an innovator. Many great scholars of classical music place Mahler as the stepping stone between Wagner and Schoenberg. His output is very small amounting to nine acknowledged symphonies and the song cycle, Des Knaben Wonderhorn (1892-'98).


Resurrection Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1888-'94) was revived in 1896. Many think this to be his best symphony and Mahler thinks this to be the sequel of The Titan. This score calls for gargantuan forces containing a pipe organ, church bells, off-stage horns and trumpets with a strong vocal backing of a soprano, contralto and chorus.

If this score was subjected to a programmatic interpretation I would say the first movement is about death, the second about youthful optimism, the third about life's vulgarities and the fourth about spiritual life and the last movement about Judgment Day. Music teachers will term this as an allegory on the life of man. The finale is loud enough to wake up the dead, one of the shattering climaxes in a symphony it wraps in a thrilling end.

Talented pianist, Helene Grimaud supports Vladimir Jurowski as he conducts the LPO to orchestrate Mahler's Symphony No. 1 The beautiful and sensitive score in the opening chapter of his spiritual autobiography is delicately handled by Jurowski keeping in mind the situation under which Mahler scored the composition. The music seems to awaken, emerging from hushed strings into its strides; marching forth, stamping towards an eerie realisation of a nursery rhyme and arriving at a final blazing affirmation of faith. No one, but Jurowski can translate the hidden notes of the symphony to life the way Mahler intended.

Turning point

Jaap Van Zweden was yet another conductor who took over Mahler for the season ably resonated by violinist, Leonidas Kavakos. His choice was Symphony No. 6 where everything changed at the dawn of 2011 that was Mahler's turning point where the fifth and sixth symphonies were concerned. Disappeared were the folk tunes that dominated the earlier four symphonies and in their place is the thrusting rhythm with a demonic drive with an argumentative edge.

They are all heard through an empowered orchestra. The sixth is compelling and overwhelming that was brilliantly conducted by Zweden. We must remember that there was something untouchable about Mahler that was indescribable, perplexing and alluring. One can read about it, but it only really grips you with the experience felt.

His orchestras do not look different and the instruments he puts together speak for his scores. His ensembles resound with sharp-edged sonority that was entirely new a century ago. But they still sound unique. Mahler pushed strikingly different moods against one another with optimism and required the next to be an inevitable and urgent tragedy. He played with emotion as no other composer did.

Exposed in his symphonies he expounded drama that grappled with dreams in full view because his philosophy knew no compromise. That was Mahler's weakness at times; sometimes, reaching for psychological tension up to a breaking point that nearly exploded. Due to his belief in human expressions of longing and questions, Mahler made himself clear to reveal the touching vulnerability in us. He was right.

Any conductor will tell you that performing Mahler is not easy. The challenges are mental and physical. That in a way was what he opted for in his scores. For example, his Third Symphony was a sort of metaphor for Mahler's artistic struggle. You can feel and hear that struggle in each and every note that flows in the air when he is played in concert halls such as today at the Royal Festival Hall. Symphony No. 6 will vouch for its credibility though not as uprising as with the rest of his other symphonies and the least considered for performing.


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