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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Film 1: Conducting Mahler
Documentary featuring extracts from all the Mahler symphonies, plus interviews with conductors Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle, Riccardo Chailly and Riccardo Muti
Film 2: I Have Lost Touch With The World
An analysis of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with Henry-Louis de la Grange, Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra
Directed by Frank Scheffer – 1996 (Film 1) and 2004 (Film 2)
ALLEGRI FILMS DVD 9D512 [132:00]              


These two films by distinguished Dutch documentary film maker Frank Scheffer concentrate on the symphonies of Mahler. The first takes its inspiration from the 1995 Mahler Fest in Amsterdam, where the three great orchestras associated with Mahler – the Concertgebouw, Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics – took centre-stage with the five conductors listed above, to perform all the numbered symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde.

What the film basically gives us is a 70-minute potted version of the rehearsals, plus a generous helping of ‘talking heads’-style interviews with the conductors, the lion’s share of which goes, understandably perhaps, to Haitink and Chailly, with Abbado in third and only a couple of brief (but telling) contributions from Rattle and Muti. Given the stature and intelligence of these musicians as Mahlerians, it really goes without saying that everything they say is of some significance. I’m sure I’m not alone in enjoying hearing great musical figures articulate their thoughts and ideas about great music; I can’t resist quoting just one here, when Haitink talks about Mahler’s ‘talent for suffering’ finding its way into his music.

Regarding the musical sequences, we see Haitink rehearsing symphonies 2, 3, 6, 10 (adagio only, of course) and Das Lied (favouring a baritone, Thomas Hampson); Chailly rehearsing 1 and 8, Abbado in 5 and 9, Muti in 4 and Rattle in 7. The technique is simple and uniform, with the camera largely staying on the conductor as the music unfolds, sometimes in long paragraphs (as with Rattle), sometimes with much stopping and starting. Either way it’s illuminating, particularly in sequences such as the offstage band in the Resurrection, which proves an acoustic problem for Haitink and his assistant. We’re not always told which conductor is rehearsing which orchestra – sometimes it’s more obvious than others – but this is hardly a problem; they are all supremely talented players and the results, even in rehearsal, are refined and often exhilarating. The surprise for me was Muti, not because I ever doubted his ability, but because I’d never heard him in Mahler; this makes me itch to hear a complete 4th.

Sound quality is pretty good and there are individual, named chapters (‘Mahler the Modernist’, ‘Vienna at the Turn of the Century’ etc.) though it makes obvious sense to run the film unbroken, making the chapters of negligible value.

The second, slightly shorter film is a more in-depth look at the 9th, this time with much longer extracts and the spoken analysis from Chailly and Mahler biographer-supreme, Henry-Louis de la Grange. It was obviously made to coincide with Chailly’s imminent departure from the orchestra, something which adds an extra poignancy to the proceedings. It’s good to get longer chunks - virtually the whole of the first movement exposition and a good ten minutes of the finale – and typically intelligent observations from conductor and academic. We get the tie-in to other works - a longer extract of Hampson’s Das Lied is featured again - and though it’s fair to say there’s nothing a seasoned Mahlerian won’t already know, illustrated talks like this are very enlightening in their own way. There’s even time for a joke between Chailly and the orchestra at the film’s very opening, when the Concertgebouw’s second horn plays his A natural a semitone higher, eliciting first a look of shock from the conductor, followed by a wry observation that the resulting harmony is worthy of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron! As the adagio nears its end, Scheffer’s use of the famous Rückert Lieder title for the film emerges as a masterstroke, and there is as obvious layer of emotion for Chailly and this great orchestra as their partnership also reaches a conclusion.

Sound quality is much better on this second film and picture quality throughout is good. Definitely one for Mahlerians but also a serious contender for lovers of the mysterious art of conducting, especially just what goes on in the rehearsal room.

Tony Haywood





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