Friday, 25 February 2011

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Mahler

On Wednesday Nicy and I went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing at the South Bank Centre. It's 30 years since I heard them play in London, and that was under their legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan. Then, I had to queue for hours the day the tickets went on sale; now we simply went on line, but we had to be quick. Within the first few hours all the tickets went - we got almost the last 2.

On my Facebook page I've described the BPO as the 'BMW 7 Series' of orchestras. Completely faultless playing whatever the music (road conditions). Classy in an understated way so that you are left wondering at the music and not just the orchestra's playing.

The main work on Wednesday was Mahler's massive Third Symphony. The conductor Bruno Walter, a student of Mahler, when visiting the composer in his Austrian retreat remarked on the wonderful mountain scenery. "Don't look at that," Mahler is reported to have said, "I've described it all in my music." And you can believe it in this sprawlingly massive symphony where you can easily imagine brooding mountains with rocky crags, spring flowers bursting through, the dances of Pan and other woodland spirits, the yodels of Austrian shepherds, and the sublimity of human, perhaps divine, love.

The music lurches from brooding seriousness, to vulgar Jewish klezmar band, to alpine scenes with yodelling, a sentimental minuet, a setting of a deep poem by Nietzche followed by a sugary children's religious song, and then finally, a 25 minute long unfolding (in rondo form - if you want the technical description) of a sublime melody celebrating love.

The whole symphony is a celebration of life from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some of Mahler's fans get rather precious about his music: "O God, wouldn't you DIE without Mahler," says one of the characters in the play and film 'Educating Rita'. It's rather ironic that she tries to commit suicide while Mahler's 6th symphony is playing on her record player.

His later music has a poignancy to it that is almost unbearable as he contemplates the sadness of having to leave this life behind, in, for example 'Das Lied von der Erde'. But it's because he loved life so much and couldn't bear the thought of leaving it. Tragically, Mahler died at the comparatively young age of 51. I believe his death was due to a streptococcal infection which these days would easily be treatable with penicillin.

If music can celebrate life in all its fulness, then Mahler's music does it. Jesus said, in the Gospel of John, that he came to bring life in all it fulness. Mahler's music celebrates life, but I believe Jesus actually GIVES fulness of life.

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