Thursday, September 20, 2012


Messiaen and Mahler

It has been Deutschland Über Alles this week at the Proms. Two evenings with the Berlin Phil and on Sunday (September 2) the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (September 2). 'Gewand' = Cloth but this noble band certainly has not got cloth ears. it is one of the world's great orchestras and it played up its reputation in a programme of two whopping great masterpieces: Messiaen's Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum (1964) and Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1904 – 6).
The Messiaen is scored for a large orchestra of woodwind, brass and percussion (bells, gongs and tam-tams). There are five movements of an awe-inspiring nature as befits the subject. The Albert Hall is a perfect venue. Sometimes I wonder about the actual quality of the score but it is certainly a quite extraordinary experience. It begins down in the dark regions, as if Fafners are lurking. Five flutes then pierce the ear and one might think that all hell is breaking loose but no, it is, of course, the resurrection – and a graphic representation it is, prompting recollections of Stanley Spencer's canvases and perhaps John Martin's too. The tam-tams – three of them – sound and resound mightily, a shattering noise, especially when dying away; there is nothing in music like it.
One curious quirk: Messiaen's score dwells very much on the interval of an augmented fourth, that’s A downwards to D sharp. Now this interval is known as the devil in music (diabolus in musica). So what is it doing in a piece about resurrection?

Mahler too had a go, most successfully, at the Resurrection in his Symphony No. 2 but of his purely orchestra symphonies surely No. 6 stands supreme, at first dubbed 'Tragic' by the composer, it spans more than an hour and it spans, it would seem, life itself; or maybe Mahler's own life. The work is a model of artful construction, only stepping the bounds once in the half-hour magnificent finale with Mahler apparently predicting his own death with what should have been three blows of fate, except that Mahler could not bring himself to tempt fate and so he cut the third.
Part of Mahler's solution to the problem of the symphony is that his music incorporates fragments of a popular nature (no vulgarity, mind you, not popular in that sense) so that the ear has something to hang on in midst of all the swirling, almost hysterical flights of fancy. There are passages of ineffable beauty to be heard, for example in the brass quasi-chorales and the arches of high violin sound in the finale.

This was a rousing performance with Riccardo Chailly in total command of his Leipzigers and it was certainly the loudest performance of the many I have heard. This is an orchestra to cherish.

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