Sunday Star Times
Rod Biss - Sunday Star Times, New Zealand, November 10, 2002
Any Mahler symphony is serious, needing concentrated listening. The Sixth is the most demanding of them all and is also the most pessimistic and harrowing with passages in it that anticipate the furious Stalin portraying pages of Shostakovich. Mahler's wife, Alma, said it was his most personal symphony, one in which "he let all the demons show". Benjamin Zander says that it is music that is "implacable, uncompromising, and annihilatingly tragic". But there are many Mahler scholars, Zander included, who argue persuasively that it is Mahler's finest symphony.
It is surprising to discover that the symphony was written in 1903 when Mahler was probably at his most fulfilled and happy. He had been married for two years and was thrilled to be the father of a young daughter. His conducting at the Imperial Court Opera in Vienna was highly successful. Why, in these circumstances, did Mahler write the darkest work of his entire output?
Mahler believed that artists had the cruel gift of prophetic vision, and in this symphony there are frightening predictions for both humanity and himself. Both the outer movements are packed with militaristic march rhythms which it is easy to believe foreshadow the coming first world war. In the last movement there are three shattering hammer blows which interrupt the flow of the music with terrifying effect. It's as though fate was striking down the hero, and in this most personal of Mahler's symphonies we know he saw the hero as himself. Three tragedies did, in fact, strike Mahler in the year following the work's first performance; his first daughter died, he was forced to resign from the Opera House, and he was diagnosed as having a fatal heart condition. Mahler was so deeply overcome by the impact of his own music that he superstitiously removed the third hammer blow from the last movement and adjusted the orchestration.
The darkness of the symphony is balanced in the first movement by a passionate love theme that Mahler told Alma was a portrait of her, and also by a restful scene which Mahler described as the "peace of the high mountains where the only sound you can hear are the cowbells" – and they are, of course, here in the music. The slow movement, too, is one of Mahler's most serenely beautiful.
Zander's reading of the symphony is both fierce and tender - the military motifs are thumped out, but the slow movement is played with tenderness of feeling, and detail of expression. Comparison of Zander with Karajan's highly regarded performance with the Berlin Philharmonic is revealing; Karajan is faster, more brittle, brilliant and relentless, but I believe Zander is closer to the volatile spirit of Mahler.
But the main reason to choose Zander is his 79 minute disc of introduction and explanation. This is Zander the communicator at his most winning and informative; he explains the music from the inside, shows how it fits classical forms and patterns and after you have listened to him you will appreciate the way the old sonata form gave dramatic strength to Mahler's music. He plays all the motifs that you need to grasp to understand the structure and shows how they are used right through the symphony. Zander also invites you to re-programme the order of the movements if you wish, bearing in mind that Mahler changed his mind about the order after the score was published. These CDs even give you two versions of the last movement – with two hammer blows (as Mahler performed it) or three (as he wrote it!).