Mahler's saturation point
This blog post by Tristan Jakob-Hoff, from the Guardian Online, deals with the not-unknown phenomenon of finding Gustav Mahler's music a bit too much. He notes,
What is striking is that I don't seem to be the only one. Last year, a fellow fan announced that he had finally had it with Mahler. He could no longer listen to his music: it was just too cloying, too riven by insecurity, even - whisper it - too long. These were the sorts of accusations my girlfriend - who had never really "got" Mahler - had often levelled at his music. But to hear it from a fan - and, worse, to find myself secretly agreeing - was deeply concerning. Perhaps it wasn't just me - maybe the collective consciousness had moved on too.
He goes on to say,
In other words, this is a sort of logical antipode to the Lewis Thomas / Leonard Bernstein approach to Mahler. The thing, though, is that there have been some new approaches (i.e., post-1970) to Mahler's works, even the 9th, that have adopted - as a premise - clear-eyed and rational approaches to the works. The two most notable conductors to do this are, of course, Pierre Boulez and Michael Gielen.
So has the shine finally come off Mahler? In a post-9/11 world - a world in which we are fed a constant, wearying diet of terrorism, climate change, genocide and epic natural disasters, but one in which we are crucially short on optimism - has our appetite for Mahler's brand of dualism been diminished? Perhaps the problem is that, while the more extreme passages in his music seem to reflect all too accurately the world in which we live, the sentimental aspects feel more and more like false consolation.
That isn't to repeat the old saw about Boulez being cold, however; having been in the hall for his Mahler 7th, I can tell you that there is both a lot of precision and a lot of power. There is, however, an absence of emotion for its own sake, which was, in my view, the hallmark of a couple of other conductors.
I would also raise the point that Mahler wrote eight other symphonies, a symphonic song-cycle, and substantial parts (in draft form, orchestrated and not) of a tenth symphony. Of those symphonies, I would say that the 9th makes pretty substantial emotional demands, though not to the level of Das Lied von der Erde. In my view, however, one cannot discuss Mahler's symphonies without mentioning the 4th and the 7th, neither of which necessarily exude angst or are Mahler's personal expressions of his emotional state. The 8th, which is Mahler's most difficult symphony (in my book) by a furlong, isn't exactly a lighthearted romp around the Maypole, but neither is it a dour symphonic tearjerker.
Now, the foregoing is not to say that I dismiss Mr. Jakob-Hoff's position out of hand. Indeed, I think it's an interesting commentary on something that I would assume most art-music lovers have experienced themselves. I would say, though, on the matter of Mahler, the larger issues are more complicated that one might first imagine (and I've purposely avoided bringing irony into the mix).