Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Letter published in International Record Review, November 2011 edition

Dear Madam,


Robert Matthew-Walker opens his review (October 2011) of Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, proclaiming: ‘It is upsetting that confusion continues to exist regarding the correct middle movement order of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.’ It is doubtless a matter of regret that RM-W should feel upset, though his intemperate closing dismissal of Saraste’s favoured movement-order as ‘wrong’ might lessen the sympathy of some uncharitable souls. This is not the only place in which the writer has expounded at considerable length about the absolute rightness of his chosen cause. He is perfectly entitled to his preference, but he might possibly garner a few more converts, were he to recognise that the distinction he posits between ‘facts’ and ‘opinions’ remains both philosophically and historically questionable. Let us leave philosophy behind for the moment, except to note that nineteenth-century positivism does not yet seem ripe for an intellectual comeback.

More importantly, the arguments put forward by Henry-Louis de la Grange, one of the most distinguished Mahler scholars of our or any other time, for the opposing movement-order of Scherzo-Andante are simply ignored, in favour of an ex cathedra pronouncement from Reinhold Kubik, current chief editor of the Mahler Complete Critical Edition, should ‘settle’ the matter ‘once and for all’. Kubik’s Critical Edition, it may be noted, includes Sander Wilkens’s widely-ridiculed decision to assign the celebrated double bass solo of the First Symphony’s third movement to the entire double bass section, something against which any listener’s ears might have counselled.

More importantly still – and this is a trait common amongst members of the Andante-Scherzo Taliban, motto ‘No dissent brooked’ – RM-W makes no reference whatsoever to the evidence of our ears as listeners and our eyes as analysts – and our minds as both. For me, whatever the ‘truths’ of what Mahler might or might not have said to Mengelberg and so forth, the proof of the pudding lies in not yet having been convinced by a performance of the Sixth that adopted RM-W's preferred order. He has sneered elsewhere that Erwin Ratz, Kubik’s predecessor, ‘was not a scholar, nor an historian, but an analyst,’ whereas experience informs some of us at least that the three roles are not necessarily mutually exclusive and may even support one another. It will not surprise the reader to be reminded that Ratz’s preference was for Scherzo-Andante. Of what is it that RM-W et al. are so afraid? That our eyes and ears, alert to the devastating tonal and dramatic impact of placing the intensifying Scherzo immediately after the first movement, might help us to make up our own minds? For rarely do proponents of Andante-Scherzo offer any musical arguments to support their case. What of other present-day conductors as different as Pierre Boulez, Michael Gielen, and Bernard Haitink? Are they and their performances to be dismissed quite so peremptorily, whether ‘right’, ‘wrong’, or God forbid, just ‘different’? I make no secret of my preference to date for Scherzo-Andante, but am perfectly willing to be convinced otherwise; why would anyone wish to silence discussion in the way that RM-W and others imply?

Yours etc. ...

Robert Matthew-Walker's response to my letter may be found in the same edition of IRR. Click here for the journal's website.

4 comments:

Andrew said...

Agree with your position entirely, Mark. RMW has been banging on as though his is the only possible view for too long - it's getting rather old. I think it was James Conlon (might be wrong though) who wrote an interesting piece in Gramophone a while back stating that he'd had a change of heart about the movement order, precisely because it seemed to him to make more musical sense to place the Scherzo first. I agree, but I am happy to hear either and make my own mind up. Keep up the good work.

benoitdespinoza said...

I totally agree with you. It makes much more sense to adopt the Scherzo Andante disposition. It is a matter of pure musical logic : there are so many thematic and agogic ressemblances between the Ist movement and the scherzo, that playing them one after another has this sadistic ring which makes Mahler understandable: you heard a demanding, exhausting, almost vaudoo-esque first movement, you think it is over... and it is not! Back in the trance again. And of course, the Andante plays the essential role of being respiration before the final cataclysm (which lasts more than half an hour) -- of course it is not *just* that, as Alban Berg enthusiastically noticed. I never understood the reasons of the inversion of the two middle mvt. Abbado condones it. But when I listen to his excellent 6h with the LFO, I switch directly to track 3, then come back to track 2...
As a matter of fact Saraste's version of the 6th is quite good (not as good, though, than his extraordinary Sibelius 4th, which almost made me like Sibelius); my main regret is that he reintroduced the third hammer stroke, which makes no musical sense at all.
As usual, apologies for my awful English.

benoitdespinoza said...

I totally agree with you. It makes much more sense to adopt the Scherzo Andante disposition. It is a matter of pure musical logic : there are so many thematic and agogic ressemblances between the Ist movement and the scherzo, that playing them one after another has this sadistic ring which makes Mahler understandable: you heard a demanding, exhausting, almost vaudoo-esque first movement, you think it is over... and it is not! Back in the trance again. And of course, the Andante plays the essential role of being respiration before the final cataclysm (which lasts more than half an hour) -- of course it is not *just* that, as Alban Berg enthusiastically noticed. I never understood the reasons of the inversion of the two middle mvt. Abbado condones it. But when I listen to his excellent 6h with the LFO, I switch directly to track 3, then come back to track 2...
As a matter of fact Saraste's version of the 6th is quite good (not as good, though, than his extraordinary Sibelius 4th, which almost made me like Sibelius); my main regret is that he reintroduced the third hammer stroke, which makes no musical sense at all.
As usual, apologies for my awful English.

Mark Berry said...

No need at all to apologise for your English: it is very good and you really get to the heart of the matter. I agree about the hammer blow. Interesting, is it not, that almost no one ever tries to make a *musical* case for Andante/Scherzo?