04 September 2007

Mahler C Minor Symphony Led by Rodzinski


Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Artur Rodzinski; Astrid Varnay, soprano; Enid Szantho, contralto; and the Westminster Choir, Dr. John Finley Williamson, director.

Dr. Rodzinski's program last night at Carnegie Hall, announced beforehand as being "dedicated to the suffering of the oppressed," was not exactly a heartening affair, even when those dead, personified by the Westminster Chorus, rose to their feet and began to sing (in English) Klopstock's "Resurrection" Ode, used by Gustav Mahler as text for the final part of the fifth movement of his leviathan-like Second Symphony. For this reviewer, the piece is pathetic, but not in the moving sense of the word, because the degree of its insistence on dramatic effect isolates it from the realm of truly important music, and thus deprives it of the right to be judged as such. If the composer had been content to let his work be simply a piece of music, it might have been either a good one or a bad one, but it would at least have stood on its own purely musical merits; however, since he insisted on making it a shocker, complete with chorus, organ, ten horns, augmented percussion, and offstage flourishes, there is no way open for us to consider it from the point of view so feverishly indicated by its creator: from the point of view of dramatic impact. Today, as a thrill-producing device, it is as outmoded as a stereoscope.

One is sorry that Mahler was fated to live and work in age when Disney and Fantasound had not made their appearance, not because he would necessarily have been interested in films as a medium of artistic expression (although he might easily have been, and why not?), but because the infinitely superior ability of that medium to express his particular kind of literary-philosophical magniloquence would have induced him to exercise his talents in fields of expression more appropriate to the art of music.

As it turned out, Mahler's architectural abilities eclipsed his creative sense of proportion, with the result that his music is not situated on a main thoroughfare of music but on a byway. Neither the thematic material of the Second Symphony nor the harmonic treatment of the material is forceful (read: original) enough to assign it to that wide avenue. What is present is a strong personal inflection capable of imbuing his expressive faculty with a high degree of eloquence. But that eloquence is employed almost exclusively to give tongue to a megalomaniacal passion for the grandiose. One has a suspicion that, given the proper circumstances, he might have qualified as a favorite with certain groups in the Third Reich, whose doctrine of glorification of the irrational conditions all esthetic manifestations of that country ...

-- from Paul Bowles on Music, edited by Timothy Mangan and Irene Herrmann (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2003).

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