Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Atkinson: the most beautiful passage in each Mahler symphony

I played one of Richard Atkinson’s meatiest videos on YouTube, “Most Beautiful Passage in Each Mahler Symphony”

Playing this video made me relive a lot of my young adulthood, almost as if from the Monroe Institute.

He spends a lot of time on the second theme of the finale of Symphony #1 in D (1888).  The “Titan” is notable for its opening, quoting the opening of the Beethoven Ninth.  It’s buoyant first movement is rompish, almost Haydn-like.  I think the whole symphony works better when the “Blumie” movement is included. 

The Finale is interesting for its time for its stormy opening in the distant key of F Minor. The second theme of the finale generates the “beauty” and illustrates Mahler’s tendency to linger a moment, perhaps in a remote key (Schubertian modulations).  The conclusion of the symphony is remarkable for the sudden resolution to D Major at the end, and the quote of Handel’s Messiah (and “He shall reign…”). I remember hearing a lunch-time performance (break from work) at the Minnesota Orchestra maybe in 2000.

From Symphony #2 (the “Resurrection”) he chooses the opening of the first vocal movement, in D-flat, “Primal Light’.  The finale of this work is very complicated as to form (again, the main theme starts in F Minor, for a symphony in C Minor;  there is a “sunrise” introduction to it;  the second theme is a march which becomes the great, and very singable hymn, at the end.  I have always wondered why Mahler ends in the relative Major of E-flat rather than the Picardy C Major.  I heard this performed in NYC in Carnegie Hall in the 1970s.

For Symphony #3 in D Minor, he chooses the passage that prepares for the climax at the very end.  The slow movement finale (25 minutes) is one of the few big symphonic slow movements that actually ends loudly. I heard the Minnesota Orchestra play this, I think in 2002 when I was working there part time. 

For Symphony #4 in G, he choses the modulations after the “Sunrise” at the end of the slow movement, which ends on the dominant D.  The last movement is a song which starts in G and ends in E Major, quietly, an odd exercise in progressive tonality.  (Among Mahler, the 4th, 6th, 9th, and 10th as completed end quietly.)  Some observers claim that Mahler had considered making this a seventh movement to the Third, which a high school chum would have liked (I remember a specific discussion of on my senior year Mt. Washington trip in 1961). 

My “ear” had learned the familiar Mahler by the time I graduated form high school, but I think I got my first records of it at the end of 1961 (the Vox Box with 1 and 9 and Horenstein), and stereo recordings of #4 and #2 for Christmas in 1962.  This was a turbulent time in my own life, which this music marks.

For Symphony #5, he chooses the end of the famous Adagietto in F.  That movement was played repeatedly on the radio on WGMS in Washington the weekend that John Kennedy was assassinated.  The first movement, a funeral march in C# Minor, uses the opening rhythm of the Beethoven 5th.  There follows a conventional sonata allegro in A Minor, a Scherzo in D, the Adagietto, and a fugal finale in D.

For Symphony 6 he chooses a wistful passage in the slow movement, itself in E-flat, a tritone away from the home key of A Minor.

For Symphony 7 he picks a particularly Wagnerian passage with the second theme of the first movement. 

For Symphony 8 in E-flat, he picks the prep for the final chorus.  This time, the triumphant choral ending is in the tonic key for the entire work.  But, compared to the closing of the Second, the closing hymn is much less stanza-oriented in its structure.  After playing this video, I just had to play Bernstein’s closing on YouTube.

For Symphony 9 in D Minor – the first movement, with its near atonality in some passages, sounds like the beginning of the whole sequence of expressionism that Schoenberg and Berg would complete. But the slow movement finale is in D-flat, and seems very resigned, and Atkinson picks a passage near the end.
I'm a little more impressed with the harmonic inventiveness that he points out in the early works than mid and late works. 

He does not cover Symphony #10 in F# (which I heard earlier this year at the National Symphony). I like the massive dissonance toward the end of the first movement. I think he could do a similar video for Schoenberg, and discuss especially Pelleas et Mellisande and then the Gurre-Lieder. 

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