Monday 28 November 2011

Letter published in International Record Review, December 2011 edition

Dear Madam,

I hope that it will not try patience unduly for me to respond to Robert Matthew-Walker’s reply to my letter (November 2011) concerning the movement order in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. It seems to me that the fundamental difference between our positions is that I am perfectly willing to listen to performances that do not conform to my æsthetic preference, holding out at least the possibility that I might be convinced by the artistic result, whilst RM-W dismisses out of hand those that are not ‘correct’. I find the very idea of ‘correctness’ odd indeed with respect to matters of performance. What is the endgame? A final, ‘correct’ performance or audition, after which we shall no longer have any need to attend to the work? Surely Mahler’s music continually challenges us, continually poses problems, which by their very nature resist solution. That is very much part of its greatness.

And yes, if someone were to believe that it made sense to reverse the second and third movements in the Second Symphony, why not let him do so? Why should we wish to act as police rather than as listeners? Many musicologists adopt much more of a post-modernist stance than I when it comes to the concept of musical works. I do not reject it; indeed I strongly hold to it, but not, I hope, in naïve fashion. The essence of a work, the Schoenbergian – or, should one prefer, Platonic – ‘Idea’ changes not only through time but also according to other matters of context. If the Sixth Symphony did not mean many different things to us than it did to Mahler, something would have gone horribly wrong. Few dogmas have done such harm to musical performance as Werktreue, or ‘fidelity to the work’. Sometimes a greater fidelity may be found in ‘infidelity’. That is not to say that one should do whatever one likes; there are good decisions and bad, better decisions and worse, and they might vary according to time and context. But ‘correct’ rarely comes into it.

This is not an issue peculiar to Mahler. We still argue over ‘versions’ of Bruckner symphonies. Moreover, Sir Colin Davis, hardly a conductor given to iconoclasm, goes so far as to reverse the performance order of the middle movements in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. I am not aware of any warrant from the composer for the practice, which I should not be inclined to follow, but it represents a distinguished conductor’s attempt to deal with what he considers to be the problems of the work. It would not occur to me to be ‘upset’ by Davis’s decision; nor should I harangue others for supporting or following it. Pierre Boulez, who follows what RM-W considers to be the ‘incorrect’ movement order in Mahler’s Sixth, has altered the movement order in Debussy’s Images, giving what seem to me perfectly good reasons for doing so. Boulez tried the ‘correct’ way once and remained unconvinced, so has persisted in concluding with ‘Ibéria’ rather than with ‘Rondes de printemps’. If we wish to disregard those who would follow Mahler, both before and possibly after he changed his mind, then surely we should excoriate those who act without any compositional or editorial ‘authority’ whatsoever in Bruckner and Debussy. For my part, I should prefer to assess and to respond to the performances as performances. What would the point of insisting that Davis or Boulez conform to an understanding of the works that they do not share? It is difficult to imagine that they would give of their best in performance.

I have no wish to ‘ridicule’ Valery Gergiev for following the instructions of Sander Wilkens in the First Symphony, though I have not cared at all for the Mahler I have heard under Gergiev’s baton. (My problem, doubtless.) But I do wonder why conductors, both to my taste and less so, followed a very peculiar textual suggestion. Had they relied upon their musical sense, as opposed to practising obeisance to the exaggerated authority of a collected edition, I do not doubt that they would have acted otherwise. That is very similar to the point I have tried to make concerning the Sixth Symphony: there is so much more to consider when making musical decisions than what lies in versions of the printed score, what the composer may have thought, and when he might have thought it.

Yours etc. ...

(The letter published in the November issue may be read here.)

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