Mahler’s glimpse of the eternal

Thirty five years ago, a mere lad of 25, I was already a veteran classical music and jazz fanatic. I bought LPs, attended classical concerts with the Miami Philharmonic, recitals by some pretty great pianists, operas, and heard great jazz at the many venues we had in South Florida back then. I never learned to read music, nor did I play an instrument, but my love of music was—and is—unbreakable.

That year, 1982, I lucked in to what was to be my most memorable life changing musical event. On a Sunday morning that summer I was reading the music and arts section of the Sunday New York Times and read an advertisement that Herbert von Karajan—my favorite conductor at the time, and still in my top three—would be conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in four concerts in New York at Carnegie Hall that October. Tickets were going on sale the next day. I resolved to plan a week long vacation in the Big Apple to attend the four concerts. Karajan and the Berlin would be performing works by Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Johannes Brahms, and Gustav Mahler. Unfortunately, my week-long vacation plan turned into a three day trip. I called the ticket office the next day and learned that the first two concerts on Tuesday and Wednesday had been sold out in minutes. As luck would have it I couldn’t snag tickets to hear my favorite Brahms symphony, the Fourth, but managed to snag tickets to the Friday (the Brahms Third and First) and Saturday (the Mahler Ninth) concerts. The New York Times described the upcoming concerts on October 17, 1982:

New York is a crossroads for the great orchestras of the world, but a visit here by the Berlin Philharmonic remains a rarity. Its last concerts in New York came six years ago. This week, as part of its 100th birthday celebrations, the Philharmonic returns to Carnegie Hall for four long-since sold-out concerts under its music director since 1955, Herbert von Karajan. At this late stage of his career (he is 74 years old), Mr. Karajan is still widely recognized as a master of late Romantic repertory from Wagner through Shostakovich, and the first and fourth of the concerts at Carnegie will give us a taste of that repertory. Tuesday night, following Stravinsky’s “Apollo,” there will be Richard Strauss’s gorgeously excessive “Alpine” Symphony, and Saturday offers Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. In between, Wednesday and Friday, Mr. Karajan and the orchestra will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Brahms’s birth with the complete Brahms symphonies. (The orchestra will offer only four other concerts on this American tour, all in Pasadena, Calif., at the end of the month.)

I flew in to New York City alone as was my custom for most concerts and recitals; I hadn’t met any attractive ladies in my age group willing to indulge a classical music fanatic and audio freak like me. I spent most of my first day full there, Friday, visiting the sites. I went to the late, lamented World Trade Center towers, ate at the Carnegie Deli, walked around and gawked at more buildings, and, of course, ate hot dogs. I visited some great record stores in Midtown and Downtown and bought a bunch of LPs that I still have in my collection. I was eager with anticipation for the night’s concert.

The Brahms Third and First were given excellent performances. Interpretively, Karajan’s standard-setting 1964 recorded cycle is still my favorite, but I was enthusiastic, as I knew this was a once in a lifetime event. The Third, my second favorite of Brahms symphonies, was brilliantly performed. (I love that final movement!) The First was given a fine performance as well. (The New York Times reviewed the two concerts.) After hearing this magnificent orchestra playing Brahms in the pre-renovation Carnegie Hall that first night, I can say that the hall deserved every bit of its reputation as one of the most acoustically perfect halls in the world. I heard every note and phrase clearly in that space, regardless of fortissimo or pianissimo. A marvel, absolutely superb. Gusman Hall in Downtown Miami, my sum total of concert hall experience until then, was but a shadow of what Carnegie was, despite its problems.

After another day of sightseeing and more LP buying on Saturday, I gave myself an additional treat that last evening. Before the concert I had dinner at the original Russian Tea Room, next door to Carnegie Hall. I drank cold vodka, had a superb lamb dish, and drank tea served in a traditional Russian tea glass.

After I finished my dinner I walked next door to Carnegie about an hour early for the concert and started chatting with other fans that were already there. We talked about Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, Brahms, Karajan, Furtwängler, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, Leonard Bernstein (of course), our favorite recordings, and so on. It was wonderful to share my love of classical music and opera with folks (other than family and a couple of acquaintances) and not experience the deadened eye rolls of those whose favorite music comes in loud, monotonous, three-minute rhythmic chunks.

The only work on the Saturday program was Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, an hour-long symphony that was fated to be Mahler’s final completed symphony. I had not listened to all of his symphonies back then. I knew the First and the Second, the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth, Das Lied von der Erde, and, of course, the Ninth. I had heard two versions of the Ninth before the concert: Karajan’s Deutsche Grammophon studio recording from 1980, and one of my treasured recordings, Bruno Walter’s EMI recording with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1938—the famous Anschluss Ninth, performed and recorded live just two months before the Nazis took control of Austria forcing Walter to flee. As much as I liked the recordings I had listened to, nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared me for the experience of hearing this work performed live by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

The frail Karajan, seventy-four years old and ailing from back surgeries, walked out slowly to thunderous acclaim for him and his orchestra on their last night in New York. After the applause it was deathly quiet; everybody in the hall was on pins and needles waiting for the two “heartbeats” to begin the first movement. Once they did, the symphony unfolded itself in such a way that it was impossible not to give rapt attention to everything going on in the score. The first movement Andante was played brilliantly, full of longing and pain; the Ländlers and Rondo-Burleske were amazing as well. But it was the final movement, that glorious Adagio, the most difficult of symphonic movements for a conductor and orchestra to sustain through its final pppp moments, that hit me like a thunderbolt. Mahler had glimpsed what the other side was and had written it down for all of us to hear. Those last twenty-five minutes unfolded as if from the heavens above until the strings of the magnificent Berlin orchestra faded out and Karajan put his baton down. I was, quite literally, in stunned silence at the end. So were many others. The ovations were many and long.

This was the greatest concert I have ever attended, bar none, and the passage of time has not diminished my vivid memories of it. Its effect on me has been mystical, spiritual, other-wordly. I don’t know quite how to explain it other than the music moved me and reached inside my soul and shook it up forever. A live performance by Karajan and the BPO at the Berlin Festival, recorded that year and released on Deutsche Grammophon a few years later, was the very first compact disc I ever purchased—and I hated compact discs with a passion. Not a month goes by since I purchased it that I don’t listen to it and remember that night. I have fourteen versions of this symphony in my collection (including the two by Karajan): two by Bruno Walter, three by Leonard Bernstein, Sir John Barbirolli, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Valery Gergiev, Carlo Maria Giulini, Jascha Horenstein, Bernard Haitink, and Riccardo Chailly. Some are excellent, and some are okay—I especially like the Concertgebouw and Berlin Bernsteins, the Horenstein, and the Berlin Barbirolli—but only the live Karajan comes close to what I heard that Saturday night.

This symphony has at times been apocryphally described as Mahler’s premonition of his doom (he died in 1911 at age 51); maybe it was Karajan’s premonition as well. After the series of concerts in which he conducted the Mahler Ninth, an interviewer asked Karajan why he never conducted it again. He replied that the music had shattered him in such a manner that he could not open the score again. He is quoted by his biographer Richard Osborne as saying that the music in the symphony is “coming from another world, it is coming from eternity.” I know what he meant and his interpretation bears it out. It is devastatingly beautiful music, full of sadness, longing, and resignation—and, yes, a little anger. Today, at almost 61 years of age, I believe I’m beginning to understand what Mahler was trying to tell us about love, about life and beauty, about spirit and transcendence, about impermanence, about farewells, and about death.

If you want to hear what it was like to be at Carnegie Hall that chilly October night, listen to the live Karajan recording of the symphony—but especially the Adagio—in a darkened room, as quiet around you as you can get it. This is as close as you’ll come to matching what I experienced thirty-five years ago tonight.

Have some tissues handy.

 

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2 Responses to Mahler’s glimpse of the eternal

  1. Pingback: Tomorrow, live from Leipzig, Mahler’s greatest symphony – The Mighty Thunderer

  2. Pingback: The Perfectly Realized Illusion: why high-end audio matters – The Mighty Thunderer

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