Cincinnati Symphony's Uncommon Mahler
APM, January 6, 2009 - Some people come to classical music for a good soul-soothing, while others come to it for its ability to surprise and delight. What I love about the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's programs is that both camps get served beautifully. No small trick.
Music director Paavo Järvi put this concert together to spotlight rarities of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), who created nine larger-than-life symphonies a hundred years ago.
Todtenfeier is a dark beauty from the 1880s, written when Mahler was in his late 20s. The title translates as "Funeral Rites." He thought this music was going to open his Symphony No. 2, but then he lopped it off. Almost 100 years passed before it saw the light of day. Its first American performance took place at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, so the Cincinnati Symphony has a warm spot in its collective heart for this neglected piece.
The orchestra moved from early Mahler to late Mahler — actually the last Mahler. His final symphony, No. 10, was unfinished at the time of his death in 1911. The music was almost done, but he'd only just started handing out notes to the specific instruments in the orchestra. The only movement that he'd completed everything for is the first one, a beautiful Adagio. Järvi told me that he thinks Mahler's 10th is the greatest music the composer left us. But, because it's not quite finished, it's seldom performed. Time to fix that.
Finally, What the Wildflowers Tell Me is lifted from Mahler's Symphony No. 3. Here's a young man in his 30s, writing during his summer vacations in the Austrian mountains in the 1890s, with beautiful lakes and forests all around him. In the second movement of Mahler's Third, you can practically see him walking through those landscapes. Benjamin Britten, the English composer, found this score in the early 1940s; though he never cared much for Romantic-era composers, Britten fell in love with this movement and lifted it out of the larger work, then rewrote it for a small orchestra. It's another soothing Cincinnati surprise.