A Cornucopia of Mahler videos for the Centenary

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

    There is a growing stack of new Mahler DVDs on my shelf, and it cannot be a coincidence that this cornucopia of video has come during the centenary year of Mahler’s death.  For decades, Mahler on video consisted mainly of Leonard Bernstein’s pioneering, still-magnetic Mahler video symphony cycle of the 1970s (plus one last outburst of songs in 1988-90) and a cloud of dust.  But Mahler belongs to the whole world now, and while this new burst of video doesn’t replace Lenny’s unique charisma and fevered insight, there are plenty of welcome new insights from other leading Mahlerians in words and music.

    Pierre Boulez celebrated his 85th birthday by capping his Mahler cycle in Cleveland after working at it for 16 years, performing twelve songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (omitting the three that double as movements for the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies) and the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony.  The audio was already put out on Deutsche Grammophon last year, but it’s much more rewarding to experience these performances on video (Accentus Music) where you can witness the facial expressions of mezzo Magdalena Kozená and baritone Christian Gerhaher and bathe in golden Dolby 5.1 surround sound from Severance Hall.  Boulez is not exactly Mr. Videogenic – poker-faced, restrained as always in his baton-less hand waving – yet he still looks vigorous and totally in control, and the Cleveland Orchestra plays for him with staggering precision and obvious affection.  This is one of the most satisfying, graceful Wunderhorns in any format, a formidable rival to DG’s Abbado/van Otter/Quasthoff performance of a dozen years ago.  Boulez’s Adagio doesn’t flinch from the cataclysmic implications of the forward-looking dissonances, although he does rush through the famous climactic sequence where Mahler stares into the abyss.  You also get a video interview with Boulez, who is always worth hearing out, although the silent “interviewer” doesn’t ask the crucial question – why doesn’t Boulez believe in the complete Tenth?

     The latest installment in Claudio Abbado’s Mahler video cycle with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the Ninth Symphony (Accentus Music) has already been hailed as a towering achievement in the British press, and there’s no doubt that the cameras caught an impressive performance – well-balanced in tempo, eloquent in phrase, flecked with personal detail, lovingly played.  Abbado plays down the demonic element, but with this kind of concentration, you put reservations aside and are rewarded in the end with an unearthly, hushed, moltissimo adagissimo coda at the quietest level I’m aware of this side of Bernstein, followed by an enforced silence for nearly two-and-a-half minutes which seems like an eternity.  The DVD also gives you a valuable bonus performance of the first movement with the camera fixed on Abbado – mostly from the vantage point of a front-row second violinist.  He is not the most dramatic of conductors – a frozen, drawn, almost mummified face, baton motions that get shaky under pressure – but it’s still fascinating and instructive to watch him work without the usual distracting shots of individual players.  It would have been even better if they shot an alternative version of the entire symphony this way – or, hoping against hope, one wonders if there is a raw film somewhere of Bernstein facing the camera for the entire stretch of a piece.

      From France, Andy Sommer’s Mahler: Autopsy Of A Genius (EuroArts/Bel Air Media) is centered around the indefatigable Henry-Louis de la Grange, who narrates, guides us around Mahler’s Vienna and New York haunts, and gives us the benefit of the almost insanely-exhaustive research that went into his gigantic four-volume biography of Mahler.  Accordingly, de la Grange re-emphasizes several points made in his books – the crucial role of Brahms in getting Mahler the coveted Vienna Hofoper director job, his view that the controversial Tenth Symphony “was more or less finished,” revelations from the newly-uncovered letters of Alma Mahler to her lover Walter Gropius. Despite the presence of the redoubtable de la Grange, there is hardly a word about the performances of, and reception to, Mahler’s works in his time (a major topic in his books), and there is one inexplicable error; the film places the composition of the Sixth Symphony in Toblach even though earlier on, the film accurately states that the Fifth to the Eighth Symphonies were written in Maiernigg years before. Sommer includes a round-robin assortment of interviews with several conductors in several languages – including a clip of a disheveled, sunburned, yet ever-incisive Bernstein from his film The Little Drummer Boy – plus plenty of riveting performance clips from Bernstein and the Lucerne Festival concerts of Abbado and Boulez. 

     While Sommer sticks gracefully to the conventions of musico-documentaries, the latest and most ambitious of Michael Tilson Thomas’s series of “Keeping Score” films, Mahler: Origins And Legacy (SFS Media) dares to go further into a personal style of approaching Mahler’s life, aided by innovative, unpredictable camera angles and top-notch sound and picture quality.  Always enthused, informative and full of original ideas – a few of which can be debated – MTT spends the first half of the DVD (“Origins”) explaining how all of what went into Mahler was laid out in the First Symphony, and then shows how these influences developed and blossomed over the remainder of his life in the second half (“Legacy”). MTT follows Mahler’s footsteps even more determinedly than de la Grange – visiting Mahler’s childhood apartment in Iglau, walking the streets and public squares, astutely pointing out how the geography of the town exposed Mahler to snatches of music that profoundly influenced his symphonies.  Some of this music is actually staged for the cameras by local ensembles.  He adapts Bernstein’s Young Peoples’ Concerts technique of delivering musical analysis in down-to-earth terms at the piano or podium, but with a dramatic purpose and flair that goes well beyond his mentor’s example. Most of all, through words, pictures, and interviews with awestruck San Francisco Symphony musicians, Michael manages to tap into what Mahler means emotionally to us – specifically an American audience.  A metaphor for this film’s achievement vs. Sommer’s is Mahler’s Maiernigg chalet on the lake; Sommer’s cameras can only focus longingly upon the house at a distance whereas Michael is able to enter the chalet and inhabit it – as he inhabits Mahler.

    And there’s more, for SFS Media includes a second disc where MTT and his San Franciscans play nearly two hours of Mahler’s music in a telescoped tour through his output. They start with the complete Symphony No. 1, then baritone Thomas Hampson thoroughly inhabits Songs Of A Wayfarer in his own right, and MTT plays the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, the third movement of the Seventh, and the Rondo Burleske of the Ninth – each preceded by a brief expository lecture.  In this video, MTT at 64 is much more restrained on the podium in Mahler 1 than what I remember from his late 30s in L.A., but there has been a big gain in refinement, consistency and attention to all kinds of detail while not losing sight of the big picture.  The Adagietto is beautifully played at a slow tempo, yet in the two scherzos, as with Abbado, not enough of the neurotic wildness of Mahler comes through, and hearing them ripped out of the context of their symphonies leaves you wanting a lot more. 

    In all, though, the whole “Keeping Score” set is the most useful, self-contained introduction to Mahler ever compressed into one package. Every school should have it.