29 Apr 2006
Conducting Mahler / I Have Lost Touch with the World
In recent years a number of the number of recordings of Mahler’s works have become available on DVD.
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In recent years a number of the number of recordings of Mahler’s works have become available on DVD.
Some videos offer some footage related to rehearsals, as with the bonus disc that is part of the recent release of Bernstein’s performances of the entire cycle of Mahler’s symphonies. On rare occasions, it is possible to find some films that offer more than filmed concerts, such as Jason Starr’s DVD about Third Symphony, which includes some background on that work. In contrast, the present DVD contains two films about the reception of Mahler’s music by the internationally recognized director Frank Scheffer, Conducting Mahler and I Have Lost Touch with the World.
The first of the two films, Conducting Mahler, documents the work of several world-renowned conductors at a festival of the composer’s music that was held in Amsterdam in 1995. In Conducting Mahler Scheffer focuses on the performers who participated, specifically Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Chailly, Sir Simon Rattle, and Riccardo Muti, along with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. Scheffer wisely used his opportunity to document the music in this vivid way and in this release a decade after the event, the intensity of these musicians emerges convincingly in film.
In an effective combination of materials from rehearsals, performances, and conversations, Scheffer draws from his subjects a sense of the personal involvement that draws these conductors to Mahler’s music. Beyond any factual revelations that might occur in a project like this, Scheffer captures various aspects of the conductors’ emotional relationship to their task of conveying Mahler’s score. At times the interview segments may seem stilted, since the film includes what appear to be responses to questions from an absent interviewer. (The liner notes mention the British Mahler specialist Donald Mitchell interviewed Muti, and it can be inferred that he also spoke with the others.)
While it is not difficult to reason out the questions, the lack of a persona on screen to interact with the conductors puts a different slant on the scenes. Since the settings for the interviews are often well-appointed spaces in various halls, the sometimes personal nature of various responses seems out of place in such open places. This kind of approach certainly points to the inferred intimacy that can exist when the camera captures the interview interacting with the subject, and the rapport that underlies such a scene. Nevertheless, the conversations with the conductors form, essentially, one layer of Conducting Mahler, and function as the springboard for approaching the scenes from various rehearsals in which conductors give shape the music.
No doubt, the performers were aware that the documentary was being made, so that the rehearsals may seem, at times, a bit artificial. Head shots of conductors are more common than views that capture various sections of the orchestra, and that accentuates the message of the title Conducting Mahler. While the spoken part of the film is primarily in English, it is important to note the various places where the various conductors use German and other languages to convey their instructions. Beyond the various rehearsal segments, some passages are illustrated by behind-the-scene shots of musicians carrying instruments and the various preparations for the festival. This “social heart” of the film, as Scheffer apparently intended to show, helps to enhance the perspectives he brings to this video, which ultimately captures a sense of the 1995 Festival.
The excerpts from the music are essentially presented in chronological order, with the earlier works occurring first, and later ones toward the end of the film. While the various clips are, by necessity, out of context, they are useful in reinforcing the point of Scheffer’s film, Mahler’s music. Excerpts like these are sometimes difficult to assess, yet they do contains some memorable moments. The attention that Chailly devoted to chorus in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is certainly worth noting. Likewise, Haitink’s approach to the Adagio Mahler composed for his Tenth Symphony is moving and the esteem the Orchestra accorded him in rehearsal is preserved this film. Ultimately, it is the music that dominates the film, with its selection of a number of memorable passages and informed commentary. Conducting Mahler may persuade those interested in the works to listen further to the recordings and, perhaps, use the scores, to explore the works that have created the personal commitments of the fine conductors and other musicians documented in this film.
The second of Scheffer’s films on this DVD, Gustav Mahler — I Have Lost Touch with the World is an exploration of the composer’s late works, specifically the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. Those familiar with Mahler’s music may find in its title a paraphrase of one of the composer’s settings of Rückert’s poems, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. In either case, the phrase suggests a sort of departure, an idea that inevitably emerges in various considerations of Mahler’s late works, and which the biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange challenges convincingly in the commentary he offers in this film.
Of Mahler’s major works, two were completed in full score yet were not performed until after their composer’s death in 1911, Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony. Unveiled posthumously, the two compositions have always had a sort of mystique, like a message left unsent for years and only later discovered. As La Grange points out, it has become difficult to dissociate Mahler’s life from his music, and his death influences the interpretations of both of those two works, thus creating the myth of the dying composer when, in fact, Mahler was not obsessed with his own passing. This film provides an opportunity to contemplate the music from a different perspective, which not only benefits from La Grange’s informed comments, but also the rehearsals of Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw.
The explanation of Mahler’s emotional stated after the death of his elder daughter is an important point in establishing the context for the work he pursued afterward. In paying particular attention to the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde, the extended orchestral song “Der Abschied,” La Grange expresses its relationship to Mahler’s life. Yet the artistic accomplishment that a composer of Mahler’s stature can bring to any kind of personal catharsis is to create a work that stands apart from his own circumstances and serve to arouse other associations in performances. In this regard, the personal involvement of the composer does not create a kind of program music that forces the music into a biographical mode, but a creative work that can be understood on its own terms. Das Lied von der Erde is memorable for evoking such universal associations that its meanings do not hinge off any single fact for audiences to appreciate the music.
Beyond the orientalism that is brought into discussions of the aesthetics of the text of “Der Abschied” and the other songs in the cycle, its text is the product of a German poet whose work attracted the attention of Mahler. And Mahler, in turn, revised the text to suit his needs. Those who take the time to compare the source with Mahler’s poetry may find that the composer shaped some of the more memorable passages of the text, which he then used in setting the music. This is, in a sense, one of the more heightened examples of romanticism because of Mahler’s thorough absorption with the material he used as his point of inspiration, and it is, perhaps this very involvement that allowed him to create a piece that stands apart from any commentaries and succeeds in various interpretations through its continuing relevance to audiences.
As part of Ideale-Internationale’s series of Juxtapositions, this DVD makes available two related films that reflect the reception of Mahler’s music by such a noted filmmaker as Frank Scheffer. In dealing with the performances surrounding a festival of the composer’s work that took place in 1995, Conducting Mahler preserves some aspects of the intensity of the performances and the personal stake each conductor has in interpreting the music. The other film, I Have Lost Touch with the World is connected to Chailly’s own departure from the Concertgebouw, and it was an opportunity to focus on the intriguing final works. Beyond the inevitable associations that are made between the music and Mahler’s life, the latter film offers some glimpses into the level of performance that Chailly brought to the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Split between the interview with La Grange and the rehearsals, the film offers various perspectives that may persuade viewers into spending time with either aspect of the video. In both cases, the personal dimension that Scheffer brings to his subject emerges clearer in the films, and it should help those interested in Mahler’s music to become immersed more deeply into it.
James L. Zychowicz