Friday, October 1, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 6: Philosophical Interlude

It's been quite a while since I did one of these. My simple excuse is that I have been listening to Mahler's music instead of writing about it, which I think we can agree is a better use of my time. But the original idea had been to blog my impressions of the many (many) recordings pretty much as I listened to them, rather than (as has now happened) listen to a huge amount of music and then somehow marshall my thoughts on the whole lot. It wasn't my intention to produce anything resembling Tony Duggan's very useful "synoptic survey" of the Mahler symphonies ("Mrs Kensington, we've performed a synoptic survey of your husband's liver and I'm afraid the results are not good...").

But what this delay in writing about the music has achieved is to give me a chance to consider the nature of what I'm trying to do, why I'm doing it, and what the end result could be. I've never been one to worry about whether recording A is better than recording B, except on the basic practical level of "will I enjoy this as I listen to it?" I trust the critics en masse if not necessarily individually to point me in the direction of excellence but by and large, assuming the performers are technically up to the task, I don't fret over whether my recording of a particular work is "the best", or, if I like a recording, whether I might enjoy another one more. So it's not in my nature to sit down and listen to many (many) recordings of the same piece of music and judge them against each other. That, however, is exactly what I'm doing with Mahler.

It's been fascinating, entertaining, and sometimes baffling. Of course comparing and contrasting recordings isn't just about picking a favourite, but also about learning more about the music. One conductor chooses this tempo, another chooses that tempo, and the question isn't so much which is the right tempo, but does this tempo make sense? Or one conductor's brass is prominent, another focuses on the strings, and the result for me is that I learn more about the work as a whole. Perhaps some sort of Platonic ideal of the music exists in my mind, constantly being subtly refined. The problem there is that it becomes easy to fall into the trap of thinking the music "should" sound a certain way, and if it doesn't then it's "wrong". The best critics don't think that way, but still I suppose everyone has their "did you even listen to the same CD?" moment. The question I'm learning to ask myself at this stage is, "so this recording doesn't necessarily match my concept of the music, but can it be a valid alternative?" And yet... ultimately it all comes down to personal preference, and some alternatives get rejected. Some time ago I formulated Nereffid's First Law of Music Criticism, which is that there does not, nor will there ever, exist a Mahler recording that every Mahler fan will like. From my own listening so far, I know this is true. I'm certainly out of step with Tony Duggan on a few things, and while I will defer to him and any other respectable critic (define "respectable"!) on matters technical and musicological, well, there it is: we disagree.

Sometimes I wonder should anyone even dare to compare one recording or performance against another. Is that what music is for, at all? Obviously if you hear a piece of music you already know well, you can't help but compare it to your previous listening experiences. But maybe we hear music too often, and can no longer live in the moment when we listen. After all, I've heard 13 different conductors and 12 different orchestras in recordings of Mahler's 1st symphony over the last few months. How many different performances did Mahler himself, or anyone living at that time, hear? It would be nice to be able to reset the switch before listening to another, and feel the music anew.

But then I put another recording in the player, and that mysterious seven-octave A shines forth on the strings, and I'm there again...

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