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Gustav Mahler
06 Sep 2009

Mahler and Ligeti at the Proms?

On the surface, the theme of this Prom seemed to be Sci Fi movies at the Proms. Both Ligeti's Atmosphères and Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra became huge hits when Stanley Kubrick used them in 2001 : A Space Odyssey. So how did Mahler's *Kindertotenlieder* fit in ?

Ligeti: Atmosphères; Mahler: Kindertotenlieder; Schoenberg: Five Orchestral Pieces; Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra

Matthias Goerne, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Jonathan Nott, conductor
BBC Prom 65, Royal Albert Hall, London. September 4th 2009


The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester certainly aren’t Mahler specialists. The name was chosen by Claudio Abbado when he set up his network of interrelated orchestras which have changed the face of European music. Although none of the performers are aged over 26, it’s not a youth orchestra in the usual sense. These players are carefully hand picked from thousands of applicants, and many go on to play in major orchestras.

Their Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces was lively and crisp and they did the spectacular moments in Also sprach Zarathustra to great effect. But the real test of an orchestra is how they handle the more subtle moments, rather than the big flashy passages like that striking entree to Zarathustra, which everyone knows from TV ads even if they don’t know Kubrick. The GMJO are very accomplished but there is only so much a musician can do at 20, compared to what he or she might do at, say, 45. So this wasn’t a performance of great interpretative depth, but something to enjoy for its sheer beauty.

Ligeti’s Atmosphères is an abstract soundscape. What seems like huge washes of white noise are created by extremes of detail, “microtonal polyphony”. The music moves in swathes of sound, the strings giving way to a surge of brass, each part played with slight variation. It’s the blend that creates the “atmosphere”. Hence the otherworldy sound of percussion brushes played against the strings of the piano : it’s music going boldly where no man has gone before. No wonder Kubrick heard it as “music from another planet”. Jonathan Nott’s soft focus sometimes underwhelms in other repertoire, but it’s perfect for this work, which is one of his specialities.

How would Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder fare in such a program and with an audience geared up for big movie themes ? The songs are about the death of children, and Ruckert’s poems are so personal that it’s almost painful to read them exposed on the printed page. Yet it’s a mistake to assume that such tragedy should lead to hyperfervid, overly operatic performance. Goerne’s approach was psychologically astute. The father in the poems is so numbed, he can only articulate his pain in brief moments : most of his grieving is inwards. This isn’t a time for histrionics.

Goerne’s approach is also musically astute. Kindertoitenlieder evolves like a miniature symphony. Like most of Mahler’s music, it moves towards a resolution, beyond immediate struggle towards some kind of transcendence. Dark into light. So the final song “In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus”, starts with a storm. Significantly the storm clears into music of great delicacy and clarity. The dead children have gone into a better place where they will be cared for, “as in their mother’s house”. Miss this, and you miss so much of Mahler’s aesthetic. So “going into another place” isn’t really so far away from the rarified vision of Ligeti’s Atmosphères after all.

This Prom is available online on demand until 11 September on both in audio and TV rebroadcast.

Anne Ozorio

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