Tuesday Night: sfadb; Mahler 5

It’s only because I’m on a roll, with updates to sfadb.com, and because Yeong is out of town, visiting his elder son in Chicago, that I am sitting at home on a late Tuesday evening compiling and posting this past year’s awards results on that site.

And because I need to get as much done as possible on this and other projects before other potential plans displace these, in the next year or so.

And because I’m obsessed by an introspective section of the otherwise very energetic second movement of Mahler’s 5th symphony, beginning at about the 4:15 minute mark in that movement (whichever recording you listen to). It begins slowly and very quietly, as if in a deep pit; it gradually rises, as if investigating into the upreaches; seems to reach a slightly higher state, if still unsettled and questioning, but then finding a bit of urgency. It’s rather like the probing, exploratory, opening bars of the last movement of Beethoven’s piano concerto #5, in that the music seems uncertain for a bit before eventually finding its feet and becoming confidant in the context of the larger work. And in Mahler’s movement, this passage does eventually flower back into the movement’s relatively propulsive main theme…

But it’s this abrupt moment of introspection that always catches my attention.

There are tiny bits like this in all of Mahler’s symphonies; little peaks into other worlds that inform the grander schemes. Every symphony is a world, as Mahler has said.

Of course the rest of the symphony is terrific too. See how the opening motif of the very first movement is an inversion (in more ways than one) of that of Beethoven’s 5th. And how the eventual response descends one octave, then an octave and a half, then two. The drums. The counterpoint theme. And the gorgeous third movement (used heavily in the film of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, many years back — but it has survived that association).

Here is a YouTube recording of a performance of this symphony by Leonard Bernstein, one of Mahler’s greatest conductors and likely his earliest promoter.

See the 18:30 mark for the deep passage I described above, until 19:45.

And the third movement, a world unto itself, which begins at 49:00, and which I won’t attempt to describe.

Except — listen for that gentle, hesitant, yet transformational octaval descending chord at about 56:30, which Bernstein downplays compared to some other conductors, yet is still a key moment. In the arc of the movement, it’s a crucial turning point. Every Mahler movement is a story that makes sense musically in a way that is inexpressible in words.

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