I did a post a couple weeks back about how I tend to like the later albums by pop/rock singers and groups over their earlier ones. Springsteen, REM, Darren Hayes. This applies generally to classical composers as well, though the distinction isn’t quite as clear-cut. Beethoven is great from the 3rd onward; Mahler is great from the 2nd onward; Tchaikovsky, ironically, is best-known from the 4th onward, though his first three are pretty good too, if you listen to them. Some composers, like Shostakovitch, are intermediate; their middle symphonies, in his case the 5th, 8th, 10th, 12th… are terrific; others are interesting but you have to give them much more attention to appreciate them. –And his 11th, a special case, via Cosmos. Later composers like Alan Pettersson, exhibit similar patterns; his 7th and 8th and 9th are gorgeous and intriguing, but his earlier and later symphonies seem like trials for later ones, or experimental offshoots that don’t quite compel.
But Sibelius is the exception, in my perception — his 1st symphony is my favorite of his 7 symphonies. It’s grand and mysterious, from the opening clarinet solo to the two ‘plump plump’ conclusions of the first and last movements. Yet the dynamic range across these movements is so vast that the music is hard to listen to, in certain contexts — e.g. my car CD player. Turn it up loud enough so that you can hear those quiet conclusions, and the loud passages blast you away.
And the same is true, perhaps, in the most grandiose of symphonies with such a dynamic range — Mahler’s 6th. The final movement, nearly half an hour long, is a dynamic interplay between passages (that begin with a gorgeous, uplifting, string theme) that build to aggressive conclusions, only to be smashed into silence by huge hammer blows… and then trying to rebuild. It does this, tries this, three times. And then the fourth, final passage has no hammer blow; it seems to give up, cautiously rebuilding, and then sighing back. The music gets so ever quiet. And then — after a full minute of nearly calm silence — the orchestra smashes back, in a huge abrupt loud chord, that startles you no matter how times you’ve heard this symphony and are expecting this to happen… a chord of mixed triumph and resignation and defeat… a final last breath… before it sighs back into nothingness.
As I said, the final loud chord is always startling when listening to this on a recording. In a concert hall — and in fact I heard this symphony live, in a performance in Albert Hall, in London, on a trip there in 1990 — you would see all the performers lift up their instruments near the very end, and you could tell that something was about to happen, even as the music seemed to be getting quiet, and dying down.
When Mahler was composing, in the early 1900s, of course, there were no recordings. In his worldview, the only people hearing his music would be those sitting in a concert hall… and seeing the musicians pick up their instruments in anticipation of that final chord, and knowing that the audience would see that. I wonder if he might have thought differently, if he knew the audience would not have seen that anticipation.
I suspect not.