Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 2: It begins!

The only extant chamber music by Mahler is the Piano quartet movement in A minor, written in 1876 when he was a student in Vienna. It doesn't display much of the mature composer, aside perhaps from the general intensity of the music and a slightly incongruous salon-like cadenza for violin near the end that anticipates Mahler's tendency to make good use of less-exalted forms of music. Unsurprisingly it carries the influence of Brahms. Donald Mitchell was snootily dismissive of the work: "The movement's themes, in fact, though not unshapely and not even without some genuine impulse behind their rather ordinary formulation, are innocent of gripping character, actual or potential... their strongly contrasted characters... have too little in common, to the detriment of the movement's unity. But it is not, on the whole, the movement's melody which is its prime weakness; it is, rather, its organization which is defective" (Gustav Mahler: The Early Years). I suppose this is why Donald Mitchell is a musicologist and I'm not; if I had the technical knowledge I probably wouldn't hold the view that he's completely talking out his arse. If I were to characterize this movement then one of the first words I'd use would be "gripping", and as for the organization - well, that depends what you want from the music, I guess. Me, I'm not concerned with formal structure as such because that's simply not what I get from Mahler's music: the sense of flow I've always heard there is to my mind a natural process rather than one based on a given structure - the symphonies as a product of evolution rather than intelligent design, if you like. Obviously the fact that there is a structure is crucial to the success of the music, but all I'm saying is that with Mahler my ears aren't drawn to it in the way they are with, say, Beethoven. Anyway, the point of relevance here is that I really love this piano quartet movement, and for the same reasons that Mitchell dismisses it: "For eighty-five bars it conscientiously and somewhat tediously shuffles interlocking combinations of short motives subtracted from the movement's principle themes... the patterns and formulas are relentlessly pressed home long after their interest qua invention has been exhausted." That must be my inner minimalist responding. I suppose if pressed I'd say this is one of my favourite pieces of chamber music. Ever!

And I only heard it for the first time on the 11th of February of this year (I take notes), the recording in question being one from Christoph Eschenbach and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra (Ondine), a filler for their recording of the Sixth Symphony. I was struck immediately by the hushed opening, which emerges out of nowhere and soon becomes more lyrical and passionate. It's very evocative, but of what, exactly? It's yearning for something, but those "interlocking combinations of short motives" seem to suggest that no relief might be forthcoming - the relentless "patterns and formulas" can never resolve themselves, and despite much drama and that odd violin cadenza, the music eventually fades back to nothing. Maybe it's an unimaginative use of sonata form; or maybe this "failure" is the point. Perhaps an answer would be forthcoming were there further movements (there's a fragment of a Scherzo but I haven't heard it). This was an impressive introduction to the work, and I was bowled over, but one drawback here is the recorded volume, which renders the music rather quiet.

No such fears for the recording by (most of) the Prazak Quartet and Sachiko Kayahara (Praga), which fortuitously appeared on the Shutter Island soundtrack not long after I heard Eschenbach's version (see post). This is a much more vivid recording, you might say a very "in your face" one, and the performance itself is at times very fiery. About half way through there's a strong emphasis on a repeated rhythm that you hardly notice in the Eschenbach; it's an obsessive three-note motif that sounds like it could be a distorted folk dance - am I projecting, or is this also what the Prazaks think of it? Although the music itself may not sound Mahlerian, the concept of folk music bursting in on proceedings most certainly is. Perhaps there's more of the mature composer in here than might be expected. Anyway, the Prazaks' performance overall elevates the piece even higher in my estimation.

At first the performance by Domus (EMI) seems like it may be even more vivid again. (As for the provenance of this recording, it's part of EMI's recently released "Complete works", which I got my hands on from Qobuz - mere moments after discovering they give a 20% discount on almost all new albums for 10 days after their initial release. Deutsche Grammophon's complete Mahler followed a few weeks later - happy times for those of us planning insane projects to listen to lots of Mahler). But the feeling I get from this at the start is that it's perhaps a bit too rushed. It's a good performance and is quite similar to the Prazaks, but the Prazaks really put their souls into it. Comparing the two side-by-side I felt at the time that the Domus was a little bit "just the notes", but in retrospect that's unfair. Comparative reviewing is something I've not done much of, so I must be careful not to fall into the trap of disliking a performance just because it doesn't quite match my preferences. We see this occasionally with some critics, who splutter about how pianist X completely botches the first three semiquavers of bar 43 by playing them too fast, thus ruining the whole movement, the whole album, and indeed the critic's entire afternoon if not week. So, well done, Domus, but no cigar as such.

Finally, there's Gidon Kremer, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen, and Oleg Maisenberg (DG), whose performance is quite different from the other 3. Like Domus, they seem a bit too keen to get started, but it soon settles down. What's perhaps most noticeable here is the recorded sound - there's a bit of space round the instruments, which makes the sound rather more delicate. I wouldn't call the playing itself delicate, but it seems a rather more poised performance. Perhaps you could say Kremer et al. are playing to an audience, and want everything to be clear, whereas the Prazaks are in it for themselves. The odd "folk dance" rhythm I mentioned is rather pointed here too, and in fact rather more dancelike - not as obsessed as the Prazaks' version, which has a touch of the nightmare to it. Kremer et al. seem to run out of steam after this though, or at least don't seem as interested in delving down into the darkness again.

So, does this mean it was a great pity that Mahler never wrote any more chamber music? It's hard to say. After all, his mature compositions don't sound much like this quartet, and - aside from the fact that his symphonies are filled with chamber-like textures - it's hard to imagine what mature Mahlerian chamber music might sound like. Could it all have been as atmospheric and thrilling as this? Would it have been like the symphonies, only smaller? Or something very different? The question of course is moot, and given the circumstances of Mahler's composing career it made sense for him to stick with the large forms that said what he needed to say. Would a Mahler who wrote in as many genres as, say, Brahms be the Mahler we love? Probably not. The piano quartet movement thus stands as a lovely bit of paving on the road not taken.

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