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On the Couch with Gustav
on May 8, 2014
According to legend, the Wearer of the Shoes of the Fisherman needed an artist. One of his representatives came to Giotto and asked him to showcase his talent. In response, the artist drew a perfect circle; the Pope, appreciative of such mastery, awarded him the commission. If a similar request had been made of Mozart or Haydn, the former could have responded with the slow movement of his Little Sonata for Beginners or the latter with the Minuet from his Echo Symphony (no. 38 in C Major); such nominations are aligned with Giotto. If Mahler had responded with his Seventh Symphony - arguably the most uninspired symphony in existence from a big-name composer - the successor of St Peter would have summoned the Inquisition.
Subjectivity is king. Make no mistake: I'm nothing more than a hack from the penal colonies with hairy ears. In the sweepstakes of Western Civilisation, Gustav has a ticket - I don't. Some of my best friends adore Mahler - and they're far more knowledgeable than what I am. Even so, I have loathed his music since that day long ago when I purchased Rattle's performance of that Barnum & Bailey Eighth Symphony on LP. I do not relate to Mahler's neuroticism. His Via Crucis bores me. I find his inspiration to be fitful. I roared with delight when I first read John Culshaw's thoughts on the composer: (his music) "makes me feel sick - not metaphorically but physically sick. I find his strainings and heavings, juxtaposed with what always sounds [to me] like faux-naif music of the most calculated type, downright repulsive." May Elysium be his!
With apologies to my friends, this is how I interpret Galaxy Mahler (and please note, I've never had the stamina to tackle those song-cycles - remember man you are dust and to dust you shall return).
Symphony No. 1 - It's a nice work. Its status as the most over-recorded work in the canon is mystifying.
Symphony No. 2 - truth to tell, I have never been able to finish it. Does it get any better? The opening bars of the Funeral March hold my attention momentarily and that's about it.
Symphony 3 - It's interminable. Say no to faux Bruckner.
Symphony 4 - I have not listened to it for over a decade but from memory, it's a nice work.
Symphony 5 - that opening movement is the first of Mahler's marches which sound as if they have been cooked in a microwave until they are rubbery.
Symphony 6 - I always laugh when I hear those hammer-blows of fate. How does anyone take them seriously? And much the same could be said of those damned cow-bells. I'm getting too old for such gimmickry.
Symphony 8 - I find it to be insufferable, especially that uninspired second half where I expect the Three Tenors to show up at any point.
Symphony 9 - the outer movements are listenable.
Symphony 10 - the second and fifth movements are inspired.
Song of the Earth - predictably I had that Karajan performance. I parted company with it long ago. I could not take it seriously. Is there an end to this melodrama?
That leaves the Seventh Symphony. In some ways, the less said the better. Kiss me Hardy - I have listened to it non-stop for the past two days. No wonder Mahler struggled to finish it: it sounds as if the well - such as it is - has been pumped dry. All power to Klemperer for refusing to conduct so many of the symphonies - why did he make an exception of the Seventh? He must have been manic-depressive himself at the time so the recording served as therapy. Its five movements are remarkably homogenous - with the Scherzo being ground-zero: is this inspiration, I ask? Is this to walk on the sun? Abbado and the Berliners are such passionate advocates of this tripe - one can only wonder at their intestinal fortitude. The riotous behaviour that greets the final bar can be interpreted in a number of ways.
Reader, you are born free and free you should remain. Make up your own mind. Don't swallow the guff of the Last Men of the Gramophone. You don't have to like Mahler. He's not one of the pillars of Western Civilisation. Unlike Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, a cosmic phenomenon he ain't!
Again, with apologies to my friends. Say a novena for my salvation to St Gustav, Lord of Purgatory.