It is said of Gustav Mahler that as a conductor he was a despot and a perfectionist. "To him there was no such thing as a minor detail," Harold C. Schonberg writes, "... Mahler would not tolerate inattentive or careless playing. Never in his life did he encounter an orchestra that satisfied him in his search for perfection." After conducting the premiere of his 5th Symphony in 1904, Mahler himself said, "Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death."
Well, I'm no expert on performances of the Mahler 5th—I'm not even a fan of it or him—but I know a venerable aficionado who is. For him, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's rendering of it on Friday night was his 20th live hearing of the work, and right up there with the best of them. His verdict: "What fabulous playing from the orchestra and all that solo instrumental work. At least Edo didn't drag out the 4th movement, a la Bernstein."
The "4th movement," of course, is the Adagietto famously used in the movie Death in Venice, and one of Mahler's infrequent flirtations with tunefulness. It is customary to label him a "late Romantic," but I venture to suggest that anti-Romantic would be more accurate. Critic Ferdinand Pfohl went so far as to call the 5th, Adagietto aside, “second- and third-hand music, ugly and barren … a desecration of the sacred spirit of music.” (Invited to a dinner for the composer, he declined, refusing “to be in the same room with Mahler, breathing the same pestilential atmosphere”!)
The Cincinnati Symphony gave the work its American premiere in May, 1905, where it was panned for “almost unbearable dissonances and cacophony"—though The Commercial Tribune pronounced it “the most impressive and meritorious novelty” the orchestra had yet presented. The latter view became prevalent, of course, as dissonance and cacophony became the norm.
The true Romantics knew the truth later to be identified by Henry Pleasants in The Agony of Modern Music: "... in the opera house, as in the concert hall, vocal melody or an instrumental substitute for it is the alpha and omega of music." Mahler's sublime Adagietto shows that he knew it, too, but perversely set out instead to be a purveyor of preposterously long and discordant bloviation masquerading as intricacy.
None of this is to gainsay the spellbinding energy and precision with which the supersized orchestra, and conductor Edo De Waart, executed this work. Trumpeter Michael Kirgan and hornist Samuel Jacobs were standouts, ablaze and thrilling. The capacity crowd, including a higher-than-usual number of youngsters, roared its approval. And roared and roared and roared. One suspects even Mahler would have been satisfied.
This concert replays tomorrow night, Tuesday April 10 in Dunedin and the following night, Wednesday April 11 in Christchurch.
(PS—There was some Mozart, awash in "the alpha and omega of music," in the first half, played by two attractive young ladies, Christina and Michelle Naughton—who, disconcertingly, appeared to think they were auditioning to be Fox News anchors. Since they are clearly excellent in their present vocation, one would encourage them to remain in it.)