“Wouldn’t you simply die without Mahler!”
- Maureen Lipman in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita
Guest review by Lindsay Perigo
There are two types of people in the world: those who worship Gustav Mahler and those who do not. For those who do, Mahler's music is a religious experience. Mahler is not so much a composer as a Deity, in whose Presence one shall inexorably convulse with ecstasy. As one who believes that ecstasy is the whole point of music, I empathise with the sentiment; I just don't, as a rule (huge exception noted below) get ecstasy from Mahler. I hear a plenitude of intimations of it, but an excess of agony and angst (there must be some agony and angst, of course, in order that we may better appreciate the ecstasy) is frequently woven in, and Mahler's point is invariably too long in the making. It's hard to feel ecstasised while muttering, "Oh, get on with it, man!"
Worse things than that have been said about Mahler, of course, and by great luminaries. The saintly Yehudi Menuhin viewed him as the last gasp of late Romantic self-indulgence, and Vaughan Williams put him down as a "tolerable imitation of a composer"; however, it would be imprudent indeed in 2015 lightly to dismiss a figure who has so clearly endured in spite of his critics, who does inspire religious devotion and whose premier prophet in the twentieth century was the genius, Leonard Bernstein.
In any event, neither devout Mahlerites nor non-believers had reason to complain at the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's rendering of Mahler's 5th Symphony at the Michael Fowler Centre on Saturday night. To the contrary. From the opening Beethovian trumpet-blast—tatatataaaaaa!!—through its Brahmsian Funeral March to its explosive conclusion several hours later (kidding—just), this oft-weird admixture of tragedy and triumph was rendered captivatingly by an orchestra in top form. Their conductor, Vasily Petrenko, cut a dashing figure on the podium. Handsome and athletic, he is what might in modern parlance be called a "hottie." Watching him during Mahler's less inspired moments made for a more appealing experience for this non-worshipper.
The incongruously beautiful fourth movement, Adagietto, puts paid to any notion that Mahler couldn't have written more melodiously more often had he wanted to. That's the one that, decades later, went "viral" after Visconti used it in his movie version of Death in Venice, and is assuredly among the most ecstasy-inducing compositions ever. As to why he didn't write that way more often, you'd have to ask Freud. Literally. Mahler had a session with him once, depressed and demoralised by his wife's affair with a younger man, and evidently revealed among other things that he couldn't quite take his own music seriously—he felt he had allowed it to be corrupted by "frivolous" street tunes he had heard as a child. Did he routinely hold back from such unbridled ecstasy as contained in Adagietto because he felt deep down it was parody? Or that he had to atone for his "frivolity" with avant-garde complexity and cacophony? Or was it just that his sense of life was so steeped in gloom that "unbridled ecstasy" was simply unsustainable, if not unthinkable? Whatever the explanation, it's a pity, because the surfeit of derangement—cacophony in pursuit of catastrophe, to paraphrase one critic—in much of Mahler probably contributed to the beginnings of the pervasive nervy, neurotic, ugly, incoherent, gratuitous noise in contemporary "music" and all around us in daily life.
But I digress. For all this non-worshipper's contemplative qualms, the NZSO's Mahler 5 was magnificent, as is everything it does. The roars of approval that thundered forth from the audience for soloists, conductor and composer alike were well-deserved. And the worshippers were indeed, as per my opening observations, convulsed with ecstasy. (There was one in front of me, and another to my right. They were distinctive, solitary figures who appeared to be wearing overcoats even though they weren't. They clearly believed their boy had been done justice—and no doubt, when it comes to their boy, they are extremely hard to please.)
As it happens, we had already been afforded a generous quotient of unbridled ecstasy courtesy that first-ish gasp—nay, typhoon—of early Romantic self-indulgence, Franz Liszt. This hero's Piano Concerto No. 2 was performed in the first half by formidable Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski. No trace of self-doubt in the emotionally robust Liszt, and none in the pianist's dazzling performance. Hearing the single-movement, 20-minute concerto played with such virtuosic mastery was alone, as they say, worth the price of admission.
**Power and Passion—Liszt and Mahler has yet to play in Christchurch (Wed, July 15), Auckland (Fri, July 17) and Hamilton (Sat, July 18). Whichever type of person in the world you are, be in quick—and feel the ecstasy!**
TICKETS & CONCERT DETAILS HERE.
PS: To get you as excited as I am, here together at London’s Royal Albert Hall are your pianist and conductor for the NZSO’s forthcoming ecstasy, performing some little-known number by Rachmaninov: