This reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 – Resurrection – by conductor Markus Stenz, was simply one of the best interpretations of the work I have heard in recent years. Inevitably one thinks back to the heady days of Simon Rattle’s remarkable performance of the piece for the formal opening of Symphony Hall in 1991, and of Rattle’s deep understanding of the very special acoustic capabilities and properties of the hall. Indeed, Rattle’s understanding of both the CBSO, the CBSO Chorus – and of the exact spatial acoustics he desired – are totally integral to the architectural design of this astonishing building; rather like Richard Wagner’s vision for the very specific acoustics of Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
Now, not every visiting conductor, especially if visiting with performers other than the CBSO, immediately grasps the unique acoustic potentialities of Symphony Hall, and, granted, maestro Stenz was working with the CBSO & CBSO Chorus in a work they not only know well and have performed often (and to international critical acclaim) but a work which has become synonymous with them, in the kind of made-to-measure acoustics Mahler might well of had in mind.
And it is not just the invisible, offstage instruments, here placed so perfectly in Symphony Hall in the mid-distance and further distance in the huge sounding chambers behind and above the orchestra, but the layout of the orchestra itself with, for example, violins divided left and right, just as Mahler wanted, giving the contrapuntal sections terrific clarity when themes pass around the strings.
This was a superb performance. More of that anon, but, I would like to like to talk about an aspect of Mahler rarely discussed, and, hopefully, when someone says to you something like “Mahler’s music is too long”, or “I don’t understand it; it doesn’t seem to have a form or structure I can follow or understand”, you can tell them something not many know. Come with me:
The first movement of this symphony began life in 1888 as a sketch for a new symphony in C Minor, but Mahler gave up on the idea of a whole symphony and issued the movement as a free-standing tone poem with the name Todtenfeier (as he spelt it).
Seven years later, in 1895, Mahler returned to Todtenfeier, rewriting a goodly amount of it and bringing it to life as the first movement of the Second Symphony. Now, this rewriting is important in terms of the interpretation of the movement given by Stenz – and indeed in Simon Rattle’s interpretations. When you put the two, original, handwritten scores of Todtenfeier and the rewritten version together, one finds something quite wonderful.
Not only does Mahler change a lot of the original orchestration – all quite normal for a composer creating a revision – there are, additionally, points in the score, and in particular, at the almost heart-stopping approach to the biggest “structural downbeat” of the piece: the monumental – and incredibly loud – moment of “recapitulation” – or “return” – of the original, opening – and shattering – “Death” motif. Here, Mahler scribbles out a few bars/beats in the handwritten score, seemingly in a moment of wild mania – and there are a lot of examples of this kind of thing in just about all of the originals of Mahler’s scores!
Now, by deleting these tiny few bars/beats from the score, the mathematics behind the overall structure of the movement are rendered as perfect as pure, “perfect” math can be! I won’t bother you with a musico-mathematical chart or illustration, just to say: had Mahler not of made these wild “scribbling outs” in his revision of the piece, the overall structure of the movement would not be the quite exquisite pure math it is.
Bach and Mozart did much the same kind of thing and, as in the case of Mahler, there are no numerical or mathematical jottings in or on any of their surviving original manuscripts. These composers seem to naturally summon up and, perhaps unconsciously, use and apply artistic mathematical archetypes, such as the so-called Golden Mean; it is as though it as natural as it is instinctive.
So, perhaps when you are gathered at an interval in a concert and someone says Mahler’s symphonies are too long, formless or ramble, you can now tell them that, actually they are absolutely exactly the right length they are supposed to be, and that the proportions of each of the individual movements – and thus the sum total of all of the movements – are as beautifully balanced and proportioned as those of a Bach or Mozart – just on a larger and longer canvas; this is the Late-Romantic period, after all!
This is where interpretations of Mahler, like this stunning performance by Stenz, and certainly of Rattle, are so thrilling and exciting. Both conductors, either knowingly or unknowingly, and perhaps instinctively, lend importance, weight and significance to these otherwise hidden moments of seemingly perfect musico-mathematical conjoining. Listen to a handful of other recordings of this movement and you won’t find the same kind of conjoining as this. This is why performances of Mahler by conductors like Stenz and Rattle are so utterly captivating, exciting and truly keep you on the edge of your seat. Now, you don’t need a slide-rule to enjoy this remarkable man’s music, just a big, wide open heart and mind. As for Bach, Mozart and Mahler: just go with your instincts and you will start to feel the natural beauty of the otherwise hidden mathematics.
Janai Brugger (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Markus Stenz (conductor)
Julian Wilkins (chorus master & organ)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 25 June 2022