The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Taking the measure of Mahler in Japan.

December 16, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has a good friend and college classmate, Larry Wells, who teaches mathematics in Tokyo, Japan, and who is an avid fan of Romantic orchestral music, especially Mahler.

Larry, who summers in Madison, recently approached me with the idea of writing about something for the blog about the many Mahler performances he had recently heard in Japan.

I think that Larry sees that Mahler (below) hold a special place in the affection and artistic pleasure of the Japanese – in itself an interesting cultural fact. Certainly, Japan seems to have many capable symphony orchestras and offers richly ambitious concert seasons. That offers more proof that, however questionable its future in its homeland, Western classical music is thriving in Asia.

But in addition to providing insight into the fate of such a vital and quintessentially European composer in an Asian culture, Larry’s commentary strikes me as particularly timely and moving because Mahler seems somehow fitting and appropriate given the suffering and soul-touching events (below) that Japan has experienced in the past year or so — through the horribly destructive tsunami, earthquakes and nuclear radiation leaks.

In short, Japan’s troubles seem of a Mahlerian scope and sorrows. So I of course gave Larry the green light to write his commentary.

So, here it is, if you will, in the form of a New Yorker magazine “A Letter From Paris” kind of piece that usually begins: “A friend writes …”

By Larry Wells

It is the centennial of the death of Mahler, and the Japanese like to commemorate such anniversaries.

In the past few weeks I have hear “Das Lied von der Erde”; the Adagio from the 10th Symphony; the Rückert songs; the Fourth Symphony, and yesterday the Eighth Symphony – all performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra (below) at NHK Hall.

If I wished, I could hear several more performances of “Das Lied von der Erde” over the next months performed by some of the other seven major orchestras in metropolitan Tokyo as well as the First, Third, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies.

I grew up listening to the Leonard Bernstein recordings of the Mahler symphonies recorded in the 1960s.  Mahler’s music has continued to resonate with me.  There is something about the grandiosity bordering on the bombastic, the rhapsodic episodes, the sorrowful adagios, the dissolution of major into minor, and the death rattle of Romanticism that have made me a life-long devotee.

Bernstein’s first recording of the Eighth (below), with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, is still my favorite.

My first live performance was in San Francisco with the SF Symphony conducted by Seiji Ozawa as part of the festivities to open the new symphony hall. It was thrilling to hear the “universe ring and resound,” as Mahler described his largest-scale work.  But I remember being a little disappointed that the live performance didn’t measure up to the recording.

And so it has gone for years.

Living in Tokyo has allowed me to hear multiple performances of my favorite works. I have heard a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies conducted by Michiyoshi Inoue and the New Japan Philharmonic (below).

Most noteworthy was the first performance in the cycle in which, during the first few measures of the First Symphony, Inoue (below) had gotten himself so wound up (he is of the dance-around-the-podium school of conductors) that he fell off the podium.  He landed on his back while still waving his baton. Realizing the futility of the situation, he then pulled himself up and walked off the stage.

Japanese people do not like unexpected events, and the hall was deathly silent (unlike what I could only image to be the whispers and speculations of an audience elsewhere).  About three minutes later, Inoue (below) re-emerged and started over.

In any event, his performance of the Eighth was otherwise unmemorable as have been a previous performance by Charles Dutoit, two conducted by Gary Bertini — hearing the Eighth on two consecutive days is not a good idea — and one by Eliahu Inbal during which I was seated in the second row – another mistake.

The only performance that has come close to being ideal was by Christian Arming (below) and the New Japan Philharmonic.

All this has led me to speculate that Mahler’s epic Eighth Symphony or “Symphony of a Thousand” (below are historic photos of the final rehearsal under Mahler before its world premiere in Munich in 1910) is so vast and the demands, particularly on the soloists, so great that any live performance is going to have its weaknesses, and that the recordings sound so much better simply because the conductor gets to take sections over until they are perfect.  This is hardly an original insight.

(Strangely, after writing the last paragraph, I took a walk and part of the Eighth came up on shuffle on my iPod.  It sounded so immediate and subtle, so unlike anything that could be heard in a large concert hall.)

This performance, too, did not quite measure up.  On the positive side, Dutoit (below) paced the work nicely.  I have always found the beginning of the second part a little slow, but this was graceful and kept my attention. The double choir was excellent, but the children’s chorus was a little too robotic for my taste. The children sang without scores, but also without much finesse.  The orchestra sounded fine – no noticeable horn flubs, which can be a problem with Mahler. The four harps were celestial, the violin solos soaring, and even the mandolin plucked away with panache.  The choir of horns in the back of the hall at the finale was dramatic – and loud.

However, I didn’t come away floating, as I seemingly fruitlessly desire. Part of the problem this time was the demands made upon the eight vocal soloists. The three men particularly (a New Zealander bass, a Japanese baritone, and a German tenor) were unable to fill the vast hall with their forte climactic moments without sounding strained.  The five women were better, particularly American soprano Erin Wall (below), who sang beautifully.

Primarily it is a matter of dynamics.  I have gotten so used to hearing every detail and shade through recordings that a live performance of such a grand work is bound to sound a little muddy.

Additionally, since it is a work that is not performed very often, I suppose that some conductors are flying on one wing since they have not performed it anywhere nearly as often as they might have Beethoven’s Seventh, for example.

So, although I’ve heard more live performances of Mahler’s Eighth than most ordinary mortals, give me Lenny’s recording.

Posted in Classical music

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