Mozart & Mahler
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Vesperae Solennes de confessore, K339
Much has been made of the almost violent confrontations between Mozart and his Salzburg patron, the autocratic, Protestant-leaning Catholic Archbishop, Count Hieronymus von Colloredo. They leave no trace, however, in this glowing, sunlit piece, one of the last works Mozart wrote for Salzburg (1779-1780), when he was away more than he was home. These musical numbers were intended for use during the vespers service with ritual and liturgy interspersing them. The movements themselves set Psalms numbers 110, 111, 112, 113, 117 and the Magnificat from Chapter 1 of the Luke gospel.
Heard without the accompanying vespers service, the work—which is scored for bassoon, trumpets, trombones, strings and organ—begins and ends in C Major but with no overriding expectation to unify the movements thematically or harmonically. Instead, contrasting keys and texture alternate. For example, the Laudate pueri is in the contrapuntal "learned" style—as was traditional for the text—while the Laudate Dominum's soaring soprano melody is in the modern style of Mozart's day. The opening Dixit also reflects orchestral developments in Mannheim, which at the time was a hotbed of innovations that Mozart soaked up like a sponge. With its contrapuntal texture, for chorus but no solo voices, the Laudate pueri carries a sterner tone than the other movements. In the sharpest possible contrast, the gently rocking Laudate Dominum for soprano solo and chorus is a nothing less than a lullaby (so adored that it inspired numerous out-of context arrangements in the 19th century.) Full orchestral and choral forces open the Magnificat in stentorian, then joyful, declamation.
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 4
If Mozart's Laudate Dominum lulled you into sweet slumber, then waking up for this Mahler you'll find yourself a child again, with sleigh bells and flutes beckoning. Mahler conducted the premiere of the completed work in 1901 at Munich. (It was first heard in Amsterdam and New York in 1904.)
Composed in 1892, seven years before Mahler set to work on the Fourth Symphony proper, the music that was to become that Symphony's final movement was originally intended to be the seventh movement of his Third Symphony. It takes a text from the folk-collection known as The Youth's Magic Horn (Das Knaben Wunderhorn) that describes heavenly life in terms of copious amounts of food and no few earthly pleasures. Mahler returned again and again to The Youth's Magic Horn, setting to music many of its grimmer verses, depicting a doomed drummer boy, a child starving to death, a mortally wounded but dutiful soldier trudging to a march cadence.
Whereas Beethoven's Fifth Symphony finds great treasure in its famous four-note motto, Mahler's Fourth Symphony mines the riches of its last movement for the three that precede it. Ideally, one should listen to the concluding section before hearing the complete Symphony, the better to recognize the composer's ingenious 'pre-cycling' of seeds that grow so fantastically in the other movements.
Unlike the naïve text of the final movement, however, the first three all contain earthly terrors, establishing a strong demarcation between life on earth and the next life. The first moment displays a playfulness that rises to a virtually psychotic climax. After the opening sleigh bells, the winds slow precipitously to introduce a waltz (though Mahler pointedly does not ask the sleigh bells to slow at all, creating a brief moment of intentional rhythmic contradiction.) The hesitant upbeat to the waltz absolutely pegs it as echt-Viennese. The exposition quickens, then slows for a new theme on the cellos, all phrased with great elasticity. Sleigh bells and flutes suggest a repeat of the exposition that actually disguises the development section, when the sleigh bells return to introduce a solo violin, with horn and winds adding tension. Four flutes suddenly announce a new theme—three long notes and a dotted rhythm—followed by a clarinet and oboe, then horn, on their way to the phatasmagorical climax that careens headlong into apocalypse, anointed by the famous trumpet fanfare that opens the Fifth Symphony's great funeral march. Abruptly, sleigh bells and winds stealthily launch the recapitulation as if nothing terrible had just happened. The exuberant ending is in sight.
In the second movement, a scherzo, the concertmaster uses two violins, one tuned up a full tone on each of its strings, to be played "like a fiddle"—the devil's fiddle. Mahler never gets closer to "palpable evil" than he does here, in the opinion of the conductor Benjamin Zander. A horn solo introduces the first of two Austrian ländler, and goes on to ingratiate itself in spite of raucous clarinet outbursts. After another demonic scherzo episode, a trumpet fanfare introduces the second ländler. A sudden change of key momentarily opens a celestial glimpse of the last movement; but we then return to the scherzo, performed with the normally tuned violin just long enough for the high-tuned instrument to pluck its way back in. Raucous woodwind shrieks end the movement.
The third movement opens in serenity, the strings describing a deceptively simple major scale starting on B, rising and falling. The theme gives way to variations against countermelodies. A new "lamenting" theme enters on the oboe, unfolding its own variation and rising to gut-wrenching despair. The first theme returns to reveal new variations at a quicker pace, followed by yet more variations on the second theme, an outpouring of grief by a trio made up of oboe, cor anglais and horn. Variations on the original theme this time appear at tempo, first andante, then allegretto, allegro, allegro molto—a crazy slapstick climax that abruptly breaks back to the andante. Finally, an unexpected and blaring eruption seems to erase all tragedy, subsiding to a peaceful conclusion.
On top of the often extremely complex scoring in the Fourth Symphony, Knaben Wunderhorn imagery is frequently echoed in the music. In the second verse, the sacrificial lambs bleat and the oxen groan piteously for mercy. Serene moments punctuate each verse* only to be followed by snarling outbursts of tumult. At last Saint Cecelia, patron of music, is invoked to express what Mahler felt was the highest and holiest calling of the art. Here he channels the Schubert of An die Musik, perhaps the most heartfelt supplication to Cecelia of them all. The soprano sings, "There is just no music on earth that can compare to ours," and "The angelic voices gladden our senses, so that all awaken for joy." In this commentator's view, the case for eternity doesn't get better than this.
Program notes by Scott MacClelland