Clasical on record
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Friday 26 September 1997
Urlicht / Primal Light
New Edition / Winter & Winter 910 004-2
Here's the story, and I quote: "At the suggestion of producer Stefan Winter, New York jazz musician and composer Uri Caine arranges Mahler's music to accompany Franz Winter's silent movie about the life of the composer...". That's really all you need to know. That and your Mahler. Trust me, it won't make any kind of sense otherwise. You need to have understood, and fully digested, exactly where Mahler was coming from, had come from, in order to make this particular trip. And even then, you could lose your way. Mahler, the collector, the preserver, the destroyer, the man who made a drama out of the crisis in Austro-German music, is effectively given back to his musical roots.
It's as if all the trivia that ever sustained him, all the shreds and patches, the ballad songs and snatches, the marches, the dances, the dreamy lullabies - all of it - has reclaimed him. So the beleaguered street band that bears the remains of his Fifth Symphony's funeral march down main street does so with a greater sense of world-weariness than even Mahler could have envisaged. Meanwhile someone's paid the fiddler to enliven the wake and you're thinking how cheap and cheerful, how truly ironic, the tune really is.
Make no mistake, Uri Caine and his musicians (a classy line-up including jazz clarinetist Don Byron) have really bought into the essence of Mahlerian Zeitgeist. And it isn't just through the wily intimations of the klezmer band that one can identify with it. Des Knaben Wunderhorn's hapless drummer- boy is afforded a touching send-off, his song casually reincarnated in the cantor's hebraic scat; Urlicht - "Primal Light", the Second Symphony's emotional climacteric, acquires an unsettling subtext, solo violin voicing a distressing commentary over its healing chorale; the ubiquitous Adagietto evolves from halting piano (misplaced "accidentals" suggestive of its humble beginnings) through plaintive clarinet and solo trumpet to become a collage, a patchwork of "the Mahler experience", snatches of other symphonies (as in faded gramophone recordings) drifting in and out of its stream of consciousness. And ultimately, there is "The Farewell" - "Der Abschied" from Das Lied von der Erde turned Hebrew prayer as if the melismatic oboe at its heart were that all along and we just hadn't noticed.
You will however notice - and all too well - the "electronic" superimpositions, the psychotic newsreel-like atmospherics which too often intrude upon, even occlude, our hearing. Presumably they are intended to make the Mahlerian nightmare that much more real for us. Thoughtful, provocative, and not a little disquieting, though. Broadminded Mahlerites may find that there's more behind the smart packaging than meets the eye and ear.
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