Listening Note:
Mahler’s Third
21 May 2018

At lunch today, as I read a nice appreciation of the whoppingly extensive and expensive Deutsche Gramophon set — hundreds of CDs, oodles of DVDs, all for about $1100 — of performances conducted by Herbert von Karajan, I realized, somewhat inconsequently, that I had not sat down with Mahler’s Third in a very long time. (Karajan did not record it.) It took a while to find my Universal Edition score of the Mahler, but I did find it, and then I pulled out the discs of Neeme Jarvi’s recording of the symphony and took a seat in the living room. The first movement was harrowing. I’ve read too much about the Holocaust lately for it not to sound like a sound track, although of course very few of the core Nazis would have had anything like the culture to appreciate Mahler, even if he hadn’t been a Jew. Or perhaps his being a Jew is what nails the agonizing passages to images of freight trains unloading bewildered passengers. The music is so German! (Actually, it’s Austrian, which ultra-German.) On at least two occasions, I lost my place in the score, but with the assistance of the pause button I was able to catch up. I haven’t followed a difficult score in a very long time, and I was pleasantly surprised that I got lost as infrequently as I did.

I did not follow the second movement, but I picked up the score again for the third; I learned long ago that you can hear the posthorn solo better if you can see that the instrument is playing. Then, after a break, the two vocal movements sped by. O Mensch. Tief ist ihr Weh’. Bimm, bamm. The finale, I saw, took very few pages, only about thirty. It’s extremely elemental; the opening bars, which come from Beethoven’s last quartet, read like Palestrina. (The symphony’s opening, of course, recasts in a brutal mode the great tune at the end of Brahms’s First, which is itself more than an echo of the Ode to Joy.) Although I know  the music as well as I know anything, the score made me a bit surprised that the finale isn’t longer. that the crisis to which it builds doesn’t give way to some sort of recapitulation. Instead, the orchestra quiets down and has another go at the ending, this time soaring into affirmation. I could not read the last pages; my eyes were ablur.

Several times during the listening, I asked myself, Why are you doing this to yourself?

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