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.