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Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009

MSO to Perform Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

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The Mahler canon of great, sometimes unruly symphonies has increased its hold on music lovers with the passing years. The undeniably compulsive emotional power of these sublime works has long challenged the mastery and stamina of many great conductors.

The Fifth is Mahler’s most accessible symphony, perhaps because it is structurally the most reassuringly conventional, with less of those shattering outbursts that send the music and the listener reeling into whirlwinds of emotional spin like clarion calls from some mysterious sphere meant only for visceral thrill. The Fifth is beautiful and melodious work, almost too tidy and optimistic for this most restless of composers. It coincided with a happy time in Mahler’s life. He had fallen in love and married his beloved Alma Schindler and was the successful conductor of the Vienna Opera. Yet, as always, Mahler’s optimism expresses barely contained turmoil, like some wild bird before flight. If the Fifth symphony is arguably the most beautiful, it comes with internal struggle—a halfhearted plea for happiness.

The first two movements complement each other. The first begins with a magnificent horn ensemble leading into a brief funereal theme, which misleads us away from what will be a typically Mahlerian outburst, but is quickly brought under control. This will be a happy work no matter what! The second movement begins ominously, but soon subsides into one of Mahler’s most beautiful passages—again suggesting an uncharacteristically taming effect of the composer’s poignant efforts to reign in his emotions. It concludes with a sudden chorale motif, which will be reprieved in the famous finale.

The third movement attempts a quaint diversion from the subdued turbulence of the first two. It begins with a gentle tune and trails off gently, not before laying the groundwork for another of Mahler’s supremely beautiful horn solos—melancholy, gentle yet passionate, but with a sense of nostalgia continuing throughout the movement.

The beautiful adagio of the fourth movement is almost too well known, having formed the background for Dirk Bogarde’s obsessive homosexual longing for a young boy in the film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, but the concluding fifth movement finale is the most surprising of all. Herbert von Karajan found it unbearably moving, yet coming from a composer who would have been Beethoven’s soul mate had he lived into the 20th century, the final movement is almost too comfortable for Mahler despite the beauty of its composition. Its conventional structure along the theme and variation mode—comfortable yet compelling—brings familiar satisfaction, especially with the magnificent concluding chorale. It’s as if Mahler had resigned himself into a more Brahms mood. There is no hint of the coronary drumbeat Sixth symphony to come or the haunted, insomniac sleeplessness of the magnificent Seventh. No two Mahler symphonies are alike. Each is a unique utterance, but the Fifth, posed at midpoint of Mahler’s creations, remains one of the most moving, classically rendered and perennially contemporary.

Edo de Waart conducts the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, performing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Bernstein’s First Symphony, Sept. 26-27, Uihlein Hall.