How I discovered Mahler

After decades of near-neglect and sometimes ridicule, the music of Gustav Mahler caught on in a big way in the 1960s — and I thank goodness that I was aware enough then to experience it.
Most Mahler nuts, we’re told, find their ways to this composer through one of the less time-demanding symphonies like the First or Fourth — or maybe the poignant Adagietto movement from the Fifth. My entryway, oddly enough, was through the clangorous finale from the Seventh Symphony on a free Columbia Masterworks LP sampler that my dad brought home in 1966. (I might add that from this one slab of vinyl, I also heard Bruckner, Ives, Nielsen and neoclassical Stravinsky for the first time, igniting lifelong passions for all.) No one ever told me that the Seventh was the tough one that you’re not supposed to get right away. The last minutes sounded like a riotous, even desperate celebration — maybe the cracking apart of 19th century Romantic traditions, to paraphrase Leonard Bernstein, or something bigger and more current.

Read the full blog posting in The Los Angeles Times here and an earlier article here.

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London Symphony Orchestra / John Adams, Barbican Hall, London

The intimations of both Ravel and Stravinsky in Colin Matthews’ opulent orchestrations of Debussy’s gusty Preludes “The Wind in the Plain” and “What the West Wind Saw” made for a quite incestuous feel to this the second of John Adams’ cunningly devised concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra. All five composers cross-fertilised in interesting ways.

Matthews’ take on the Debussy Preludes was governed by a desire to make them as orchestral in texture and as far removed from the piano as was conceivably possible. It’s what the best orchestral transcriptions always do and why Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at times feels as though the plainer piano original came after and not before. Flickers of “Gnomus” and “Baba Yaga” breezed through the Matthews, the headiness of Ravelian rather than Debussian colours making for an exotic palette.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales then generated their own turbulence, the sort produced by sensuous swirling bodies. The problem was, though, that Adams, the conductor, slightly short-changed us on the swoon and salivation of these hedonistic morsels, failing to exploit through phrasing and rubato the full variety of pleasure that they offer. In short, they were rather stiffly, uniformly, despatched.

Read the full review in The Independent here and a review in The Telegraph here.

The Darmstadt school's British invasion

In many ways, Darmstadt is a typical German city. It has a local beer, an opera house, parks and museums and an efficient tram network, and one night in September 1944 it was devastated by an Allied bombing raid. When people emerged from the shelters, they discovered a city in which four out of every five buildings was ruined. A year later, with the second world war over, reconstruction began. The fabric of the city was slowly restored – buildings, jobs, a political structure – and in the process, more or less by accident, something remarkable happened.

Casting around for ways to regenerate cultural life in the city, its new mayor, Ludwig Metzger, was persuaded by a local musicologist, Wolfgang Steinecke, to consider the possibility of establishing an institute for contemporary music. Because Darmstadt was in the American- controlled zone of occupied Germany, Metzger and Steinecke needed the approval of the American forces to develop their ideas and by happy coincidence the officer in charge of such initiatives was a former Harvard University music student, Everett Helms. The permissions were granted, and in the summer of 1946, American army trucks delivered grand pianos to a hunting lodge on the outskirts of Darmstadt, the temporary home for the first “courses for international new music”.

The courses were initially intended to denazify German musicians by introducing them to the modern music of the 1930s and 40s, music by Bartók, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, all of which had been outlawed as “degenerate” under Hitler. But soon new music by the next generation of composers became part of the courses too and by the early 1950s, the summer school, now subtly redesignated as the “international courses for new music”, was acquiring a reputation as the meeting place for aspiring avantgardistes not only from Germany but across Europe and beyond.

Read the full article in The Guardian here.

Wolfgang Rihm: Quid Est Deus

Since he composed his St Luke Passion for Stuttgart 10 years ago, choral works seem to have figured more and more prominently in Wolfgang Rihm’s output. The Hänssler disc includes one of the most substantial of them, the “cantata hermetica”, Quid Est Deus, composed in 2007. It sets 24 Latin definitions of God as a series of choral statements, often with minimal orchestral accompaniment. There’s an austere, hieratic quality about the writing, and a Stravinsky-like feel to some of the harmony (deliberately or not, a recurring progression almost directly quotes from the Symphony of Psalms), though the orchestral outbursts that ­occasionally punctuate the sequence have a highly wrought expressionist edge. It’s a compellingly concentrated piece, very different from the sparer, earlier works on the disc, which belong to the period in the late 1980s and early 90s when Rihm was influenced by Luigi Nono’s late works. These use spatial effects, dispersing the orchestra around the performing space: Ungemaltes Bild (Unpainted Picture) attempts to convey in sound the spirit of a watercolour series by Nolde, while Frau/Stimme sets a Heiner Müller text for two sopranos, embedding it in fractured, halting orchestral textures from which it emerges piecemeal.

[via The Guardian]