Friday, July 29, 2011

"Fresher and healthier ... than in many years" or a Swansong to life?

Gustav Mahler is a composer who inspires great emotions. Music fans generally love of hate his music. It is uncompromising, intense and all-encompassing music that takes no prisoners! So it is no surprise that passions run high amongst fans when a controversial new recording or performance of Mahler's music comes around. Of late, one of the most discussed has been Roger Norrington's recording and recent London Proms performance (25 July 2011) of Mahler's Symphony No. 9.

Norrington has really ruffled quite a few feathers. David Hurwitz writes that Norrington has "
Mahler". Gavin Plumley labelled the Proms concert "an appalling misreading".

Most of the fuss is about the fact that Norrington has his string players eschew the use of vibrato in the belief that this is closer to the sound Mahler himself would have known. But at the heart of the matter is the very nature of Mahler's last completed symphony. Posterity has over the last century woven a thick air of myth around this music. The accepted wisdom is that the symphony is the composer's swansong as he faced death and that it is the world of a dying man that any conductor should aim to recreate. The problem is that this is little more than a cherished myth developed posthumously by critics and other musicians. Vera Micznik pretty much exposed that fact back in 1996 in her excellent article titled The Farewell Story of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. She writes that "the early critics who appreciated the man and his music could not dissociate their grieving at the unfortunate loss of the man from the appreciation of his work." Micznik then delves into the documentary evidence in the form of letters from Mahler around the time he wrote his ninth. Far from being consciously at the end of his life Mahler wrote to the conductor Bruno Walter in early 1910 (precisely when when many writers have him as staring death in the face) that "On the whole I feel myself fresher and healthier in this activity and mode of life than in many years. Do you really believe that a man as accustomed to activity as I am could feel lastingly well as a 'pensioner'?"

Micznik builds a well-documented and historically supported argument that "The farewell story of Mahler's Ninth Symphony should thus be understood both historically and analytically as a fictional narrative: a tale spun through the interaction of various mythologizing techniques common in the historical context in which it originated, and never questioned in subsequent periods." Whether conductors should perform works in keeping with the social accretion that accumulates on famous works or should concentrate on the musical text itself is another debate. But it is fair to say that anyone who wants to hear a Mahler Ninth that is garnered in farewells to life and premonitions of death is willfully ignorant of the composer's own thoughts and sentiments.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Superpower petulance hands power to China

If a superpower wanted to prove to the world that it was on the wain and beginning a descent onto the B List, it could do little better than to ape the current US debate on raising the debt ceiling. It remains to be seen whether Congress and President Obama can nut out a last-minute solution to the budget problems there, but plenty of damage has already been done. Not only has the world economy been subjected to weeks of debilitating financial uncertainty around the possibility of a debt default by the US, but the very petulance and irresponsibility with which both sides, but in particular the Tea Party movement, have approached the situation send a strong message to the rest of the world that this is a country that no longer takes itself seriously. In the last week some Republicans have even resisted proposals to remove loopholes in the tax system. While the outcome of such proposals would be a higher tax take, it is hard to imagine why inequities and unfairness in the tax system should not be eliminated. Blind and irresponsible ideological adherence is the best explanation.

According to recent research by the Pew Research Centre 46 percent of Americans believe that China has already or is destined to replace the US as the world's superpower. Legislators in the US have clearly taken this to heart. None are prepared to take hard decisions. There seems to be little willingness to make responsible compromises in the interests of the nation and the wider world. The thought that as the political leaders of the world's biggest power they might have some extra responsibility to look beyond their own, narrow ideological preoccupations seems totally foreign to them.

China, meanwhile, has jumped at the leadership vacuum in the US Congress. It has done more than most to ameliorate the crisis in the Euro Zone by buying extra government bonds in Europe. Its politicians seem more pragmatic and ideologically flexible than there counterparts in the USA. Has the US abdicated? Not just yet. But its politicians should ask themselves whether they have what it takes to fill the boots of a superpower.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Castorf to direct 2013 Bayreuth Ring?

Frank Castorf looks set to direct the 2013 production of Richard Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen tetralogy. Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer and recently appointed Co-director of the famous festival, confirmed this week that she was in discussions with Castorf after film director Wim Wenders turned down the offer to direct the 2013 Ring. It will be a special season that year as Wagner fans celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of his birthday.

Castorf (60) is artistic director of Berlin's Volksbühne theatre and is known for strong, contemporary theatre that has been labelled 'post-dramatic". He is certain to ruffle some of the more conservative feathers in Bayreuth.

Keeping it in the (artistic) family

I recently saw the film Nannerl: Mozart's Sister (2010). It is the work of the French filmmaker René Féret and half his family. Yes, when you watch the credits roll past it soon becomes apparent that many of the actors are family members of the Féret clan. Two of the leading actresses are his daughters. And father René wrote, produced and directed the film.

There aren't many films that involve parents directing their own kids. It must be an "interesting" experience for all concerned. But there many other ways in which artists combine intimate relationships and their creative work, some with outstanding success, others that end in tears.

The real-life relationship between Wolfgang Mozart and his father Leopold was a complex one. The elder Mozart was himself a respected musician but also drove his children very hard as they spent most of their childhood on tour.

Conductors seem to have a penchant for romantic relationships with prima donnas, as do film directors with leading ladies. The composer Gustav Mahler was infamously harsh on his wife when he forbade her to compose until near the end of his life. Richard Strauss on the other hand seems to have been the subject of a tyrannical wife (a former singer). Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears formed one of the most famous and productive musical/personal relationships of the twentieth century.

The question remains whether the intimacy of these various relationships in any way enhances the art making of the people concerned. In answering, it is difficult to generalise. Clearly in some cases it does. In other cases the mixing of the personal and the artistic clouds the latter. It can be a highly rewarding exchange. René Féret must have felt some sense of pride in the acting skills of his daughters. At least let's hope so! It certainly must have brought an intriguing family dynamic to a film about the relationships in one of the great musical families. Artistic lives imitating artistic lives!