July 2, 2012. Gustav Mahler. The great Austrian composer was born on July 7, 1860. We mark his birthday every year, and every time it reminds us how inadequately he is represented in our library. Mahler, uniquely among modern composers, wrote almost exclusively for the orchestra. He completed nine symphonies, and published several song cycles for voice and orchestra: Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), Rückert-Lieder, Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which in reality is a full-blown symphony (Mahler himself described it as “a Symphony for Tenor and Alto (or Baritone) Voice and Orchestra”). Superstitiously attempting to escape the “curse of the Ninth symphony” (he was thinking of Beethoven, Schubert, and Anton Bruckner, for whom ninth symphonies were their last), Mahler didn’t number his ninth, but gave it a name. In the end, as we know, this “trick” didn’t work: Mahler went on to write an “official” Ninth symphony, and died while working on the Tenth.
In our library, we have a great number of composers wonderfully represented by very talented instrumentalists. With American orchestras, however, the story is very different. Most of them have very strict labor rules and do not allow streaming of their recordings, even those that are not commercial. We have recordings of several of Mahler’s symphonies, and although these can provide the listener with a glimpse of his genius, they don’t present it on the level his music deserves. We’d really like to play some of Mahler’s music during the week marking his birthday, so we turned to YouTube as a source. Here’s Adagio, the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony. Mahler subtitled is Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend – very slow and even reluctant. Leonard Bernstein, who is conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, takes these directions quite literally: it’s one of the slowest performances on record and runs almost 30 minutes, about five minutes longer than an average performance of this movement; it’s incredible nine minutes slower than Pierre Boulez’s Grammy-winning account. Some critics think that it’s self-indulgent but others believe it to be one of the best recordings of this heartbreaking work ever made.
The picture of Mahler above was made in 1907, two years before he started working on the Ninth Symphony and three years before his death on May 18, 1910, of incurable heart disease.
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