Mahler in the fast-food queue

Is it right to butcher the classics for tasty titbits? Robert Cowan applauds one conductor's protest
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The Independent Online
"Adagio" might mean slow in musical terms, but when it comes to CD sales the tempo picks up with the ringing of cash registers.

Polygram Classique proved the point when it launched its hugely successful Adagio Karajin, a 1.2 million sales compilation that melds Mahler, Albinoni, Pachelbel, Massenet, Vivaldi, Grieg, Mozart, Bach and others into a squidgy cloud-bank of musical dreams.

Adagio Karajin 2 is already on the horizon, but when Polygram tried to vary the format with Claudio Abbado's Mahler Adagios they met with a rude awakening. The conductor is taking civil action through the French High Court in Paris against the launch of "his" adagio album. The defendants are Polygram Classique; the musical victims are the slow-moving meditations taken from Gustav Mahler's Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies.

Abbado's lawsuit serves as the unexpected climax to a long-standing argument about plundering the classics for tuneful goodies. Does Abbado think that by having his name associated with compilations he will automatically be accused of Karajin-style self-promotion? Or is he morally opposed to tearing symphonic movements from their proper contexts? At first glance, the decision to sue seems a brave and timely gesture against the careless butchering of great music.

The Fifth Symphony's "Adagietto" served as the musical soundtrack to Visconti's 1991 film Death in Venice and it is has reappeared since on a plethora of compilations and samplers. In music business terms, the piece is an "easy listen", a warm, emotive affair, melodious and - in the hands of Karajan - plushly textured. Presented out of its context, the "Adagietto" forgets its troubled symphonic roots and lollops comfortably among cushions, carpets and coffee tables like a well-fed cat.

"Adagietto" is a tender interlude set within a symphony that starts with a sardonic funeral march, raises a stormy protest, enjoys a good-natured joke and - after the movement in question - ends in a spirit of unequivocal triumph. The true spirit of the movement, its musical "sense" so to speak, is lost when it is torn out of context.

In my opinion, the slow movements of the Third and Fourth symphonies, both of them full of incident and fantasy, could serve as gateways to their parent symphonic worlds. But you can't really sandwich either piece between compact slices of musical fast food.

Perhaps it is less these critical reservations and more the idea of Mahler resting among cosmetics, newspapers and trays of sweets that worries Abbado.

In a sense, dressing great music as consumable ephemera is something that Mahler himself unwittingly facilitated by writing music that was warm, emotive, melodious, and slow. You can sell him as a dream in a way that you could never sell Beethoven, for instance.

The problem for Abbado (or for any other self-respecting musician) is to weigh in the balance the potential uses and abuses of a compilation: will the contents serve as a series of aperitifs, or as a meal in itself? After all, anyone who is willing to put aside half an hour for an adagio will just as likely reserve a full hour for the whole symphony.

I personally would advise Polygram to rethink its strategy and market nine separate albums of Abbado's Mahler, packaging them individually and capitalising on the individual character of each symphony - be it the world of folk-tales, resurrection, the dawning of creation, a child's view of heaven or the hammer blows of fate. After all, even Classic FM, long derided by the musical old guard, gave us Mahler complete, while bargain CD labels such as Naxos, BMG Classical Navigator and Sony Essential Classics, not to mention Polygram's own discount labels Gallerias and Double Deccas still deliver Mahler symphonies by the truckload.

Whether Claudio Abbado is suing Polygram in order to protect his own artistic integrity or that of Mahler, or is making a point about the marketing of classical CDs, I can only wish him well. "Adagio" might be fine for dreaming, but if you want to be in on the action, make time for the whole story.

The writer is co-presenter of 'Classic Verdict' on Classic FM.