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Mahler's Sixth Symphony: Jim Pritchard discusses performance problems and reviews a recent concert in Salisbury (JPr)


Dvořák and Mahler: Salisbury Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Halls, at  the City Hall, Salisbury, UK 25.11. 2006 (JPr)

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is laden with mystery and contradictions. We start with the nickname ‘Tragic’ that appeared on the programme for the premičre in Vienna on the 4 January 1907 — but was that the composer’s idea? In the first movement the ‘Alma theme’ rises to be joined by a theme borrowed from Liszt’s E flat Piano Concerto; was this on purpose or because he just had it in his head after conducting same concerto in 1903? And what about Alma’s reminiscence that the second theme is her husband’s portrait in music of her, do we believe her?

Alma's notorious unreliability comes to the fore when she tells us the Scherzo’s middle part - the ‘Altväterisch’ Trio - represents the ‘unrhythmical games’ of their two daughters. The problem with that is that in the summer of 1903, when Mahler was writing the music of that movement, one daughter (Maria) was less than a year old and the other (Anna) had not yet been born. Additionally we need to ask if the Finale should have two or three hammer blows and indeed the original conception may actually have involved five. Alma believed that Mahler had tempted fate by composing the Sixth Symphony and the Kindertotenlieder, and was himself responsible for what befell him later in 1907. It was Mahler’s view that an artist might sense his own future.

Of course, the greatest controversy concerns the order of the inner movements. This has everything a conspiracy theorist would love including a great cover-up by the International Gustav Mahler Society. Mahler’s first thoughts with his Sixth Symphony placed the Scherzo second to be followed by the Andante third. It was the standard classical practice at the time to have the slow movement come second and a dance movement third. However Beethoven swapped the order for his Ninth Symphony, and so did Mahler in the Fourth. Mahler’s uncertainty about the matter is revealed as he switched the original Roman numerals on his autograph score. His publisher printed the score Scherzo/Andante, but while rehearsing for its first performance (Essen, May 1906), he began to play  the Andante first then the Scherzo (A/S) and had slips inserted into unsold copies of the score to indicate the change. So this is how the symphony was performed while Mahler was alive, and how his friend Willem Mengelberg performed it with his Amsterdam Concertgebouw orchestra in 1916. In 1919 however, before conducting the Sixth once again, it is possible that the conductor may have come across a pre-erratum-slip S/A copy of the score and that he telegraphed Alma for clarification, which was probably not the best idea. Her brief answer was, ‘First Scherzo, then Andante,’ and that is how Mengelberg conducted it in 1919 and 1920. If this issue was so important then it is odd that nothing further was heard from Alma when other conductors in live performance or on recordings chose the A/S version.

The Critical Edition of the Sixth Symphony was produced by the International Gustav Mahler Society in Vienna in 1963 and this was S/A. There was no evidence for doing so the Editor Erwin Ratz explained that Mahler had quickly realized his mistake and restored his preferred order. Not even Alma’s telegram rated a mention in this explanation I believe, and few conductors challenged the decision although many intriguing things happened as a consequence. John Barbirolli for instance, continued to conduct the piece A/S, but for his recording in 1967, EMI switched the movements, apparently without Barbirolli’s approval, to conform to the Critical Edition. EMI did restore them later to the order the conductor wanted, however.

There is just no evidence that I am aware of that Mahler changed his mind about wanting the Andante before the Scherzo and recently The International Gustav Mahler Society itself has published its revised second thoughts along these lines. My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that the symphony has more impact, is more frightening - more ‘tragic’ maybe? — if the Alpine refuge of the Andante comes before the ‘Dance of Death’ (Totentanz) horrors of the Scherzo. Both sides of the argument can get bogged down in technicalities and other musical minutiae, so as Benjamin Zander has suggested, there are actually two Mahler Sixths - the one that was the original conception of Mahler the composer and the one that was the result of the revisions of Mahler the conductor, made in the process of rehearsing and performing the work. Zander's peerless recording with the Philharmonia allows both versions to be played.

The purpose of this lengthy introduction is that it was the S/A version that was performed by the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra. The premičre for thatwas in Essen which is only 30 miles from the town of Xanten in Germany with which Salisbury was twinned in 2006 and for which this concert was a celebration.

The music began with Dvořák's Serenade in E for strings. Perhaps the minds of those in the augumented strings section were already on the minefields of the Mahler to come, but they did not quite have the richness or mellifluousness that this atmospheric Bohemian music needs. Though undoubtedly eloquent, that was a very studied and careful performance lacking a certain fluency.

Any Mahler symphony is a major undertaking for a suburban, semi-professional, youth or amateur orchestra wven those that include a number of experienced musicians. The Salisbury Symphony Orchestra was established in 1917 and for this performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony its usual complement was increased by almost a third to 105. They were not all on the stage of the City Hall as the numbers were too large I assume, and some were on the floor of the auditorium. The ages of those playing ranged from the young percussionists of the Salisbury Area Young Musicians to Jo White, a member of the bass section, who must be over 80.

I am sure the orchestra rehearsed very hard for this concert and they certainly seemed to have developed the playing style for Mahler. Their conductor, David Halls, conducted the music in a very forthright manner and seemed at ease with the large forces in front of him and the demands of the score.

It all set off with an appropriately unremitting heavy tread, there were some bright colours and the performance positively embraced any temporary relief from the misery such as in the tranquil interlude; much praise here to the young percussionists with triangle, xylophone and cowbells. Occasionally some of the anguish was more unintentional than intentional due to unfamiliarity by some with the music. The Scherzo was also at a slow pace seeming quite reticent and the climaxes did not shriek as they can though there some beautiful phrasing in the gentle first trio. It did set out the case for performing this symphony A/S because there was a certain restlessness in the audience because of about 40 minutes of music, which however intense can have a sense of sameness about it played like this.

The performance hit its stride with the Andante which moved at flowing pace and there was warmth and rustic awkwardness from the orchestra. Best of all was the Finale, from a disturbingly gloomy opening, it all marched forward with a strong and measured tread. There was an emotional sweep to the more lyrical second subject and these sudden moments of euphoria were punctuated by the exclamations of the tragedy that was to come. One individual who couldn’t be missed through the whole performance was Jonathan Hodgetts behind his huge grand orchestral tuba who had many opportunities to impose its resonant sound on the ensemble - particularly here in the final movement. Those who knew the symphony well realised what was coming, but the awaited event must have been totally unexpected for those who did not. Yes, it was the hammer blows! Because of their closeness, they were better than when heard in a larger hall - three very sharp, deep ones each having an awesome impact.

The symphony had all been a grim affair and the reaction of the audience was so muted that it must have been the result of head-scratching puzzlement similar to the audience in Essen in 1906. The conductor and orchestra deserved better reward for the hours of rehearsal the preparation must have taken and for their committed performance. I am sure the musicians were that glad it was all over by the end, but I am sure too that they wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything. Because of their willingness and passion to be involved I was glad I was there too!

Jim Pritchard



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