Tuesday, November 6, 2007

think big

Symphony No. 9
Gustav Mahler

I don't think I've been explicit here about my feelings surrounding orchestral music. It's an odd thing, which maybe has its roots in going to too many classical-music concerts, but on average I find chamber music about 100 times more compelling than music for orchestra. Yes, there are lots and lots of exceptions to this rule, but generally I'd buy a ticket for a string quartet concert before I'd pay to see the symphony. This is true for music of any era and any style.

There's just such an immediacy to chamber playing, for one thing. The interaction among the performers, the drama between "characters," the more intimate connection between players and audience. Plus, chamber music generally takes as its subjects things that are human-scale. And even when the ideas are big ones, they are by necessity taken on in a way that mimics the way we think and live and struggle and triumph as individual beings.

But sometimes I get in the mood for something big and monumental, it's true. Something that speaks to us as communities, cities, societies, civilizations. Something that addresses the history and grand complexities of human endeavor. And usually that's when I turn to Wagner or Mahler.

It's hard to imagine that this kind of project can be done better than how it's done in Mahler 9, really. This is music that reaches for the sublime at every turn - everywhere you feel the composer's anxiety about whether his craft is up to the huge task, and yet everywhere he succeeds. The spirit of the individual is subsumed by the larger picture, or perhaps expanded to map itself onto the larger picture.

It's a sprawling work - the first movement alone is probably longer than all of Beethoven's 9th - with moments of lush beauty, moments of dark introspection, moments of terror, moments of stark despair, and moments of pure light. But though it's a triumph merely as a collection of moments, it's also far more than that. This is a piece of music that rewards deep listening, and having heard it probably 100 or so times in my life, even owning a copy of the score, I can honestly say that there are new mysteries that are opened to me each time I listen.

Nothing is simple here, or rather anything that seems simple is either undercut or reveals itself to be teeming with hidden facets. It's always hard to talk about music without using metaphor, but especially so with pieces like this. I find mind reaching for ways to explain what draws me to the music, and I keep coming up with literary or sociological tropes like those above. That doesn't occur as often with the lean, focused music I listen to more often.

It's a testament to the work's complexity that, after hearing several, I still have no favorite recording or performance. I checked, and I actually own three recordings, oddly enough. Here's the one I listen to most often.

get it on itunes:

Bruno Walter & Wiener Philharmoniker - Great Artists of the Century - Bruno Walter - Mahler: Symphony No. 9

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