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Joolz Gale: Mini-Mahler & Mini-Schoenberg

img  Tobias Fischer

For most people, Mahler still means monumental. How did the idea of presenting his music at a far smaller scale come up?
I was invited by Sacha Rattle to attend a Berlin Counterpoint concert last Valentine’s Day. I really fell in love with their playing and we all felt we wanted to do something together. That’s when the idea of chamber arrangements came up. Mahler was clearly what we all felt passionate about so we decided to go on a journey to re-discover him!

I can see how some of Mahler's music may be intimate. But what is it about some of his pieces that, to you, truly makes them feel like chamber music?
I wouldn’t say Mahler’s music feels like chamber music as such. But certain works by him give us an opportunity to perform them as chamber music. The way he builds conversations between characters and emotions can be portrayed particularly well in a chamber music setting. You are right that his music is often very exposed, especially in the songs, where I think this intimacy will be well-served with chamber ensemble.

The chamber music transcription of Mahler's Fourth Symphony by Klaus Simon sounds fascinating. 
What I love about Klaus Simon's arrangement is that it stays true to the character of the original, yet by further reducing the instrumentation, what one may lose in texture is compensated by revealing aspects of the score not always heard. It allows us to listen to the work through fresh ears and offers a taste of things you didn’t even know you could hear. It is also an opportunity to really explore Mahler’s drama and subtleties with greater flexibility, freedom and – most importantly – fun.

Why did you opt against the version by Erwin Stein, which was performed at the Privataufführungen at the time?

Oh, because without the horn - which Stein omits - Mahler is not Mahler. The horn was Mahler! He also doesn’t include the bassoon, which, in Mahler 4, is so very important. I have performed the Stein on a few occasions and, generally speaking, I would say Klaus Simon’s arrangement is the one that best serves the work. It is incredibly well-thought out and stays true to Mahler’s original intentions wherever possible.

It is easy to see how some early works by Schoenberg may have been informed by Mahler. But how do you see that the other way round?

Both composers struggled to be accepted by audiences. Both were musical outsiders. Both endured hostility from anti-Semites. And both saw themselves as fulfillers of destiny and therefore understood each other’s positions. There is a great deal that holds them together.
Mahler was certainly very impressed by Schoenberg’s early works and he remained to his death a great supporter and defender of Schoenberg’s bold and original direction. You could argue the Five Pieces for Orchestra as a kind of ‘20th Symphony’ of Mahler, especially if you think about where the 10th Symphony was going. I like to think sometimes that Mahler has one foot in Wagner and another one in Schoenberg. But I would say that there was a limit to how much Mahler’s music was informed by Schoenberg’s: after all, this was the man who said he could no longer understand a single note after hearing Schoenberg’s 1st String Quartet.

What kind of links do you see between Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra and Mahler's Fourth Symphony, which are on the program for the first concert in Berlin?

For me, the musical link is one of ever shorter sentences, yet ever bigger pictures. Schoenberg’s Five Pieces is the first time you really see Schoenberg’s love of aphorism translated into music. He was saying more in less time and less space. In Mahler’s 4th Symphony, we have a concoction of emotions and different scenes. In the first movement, the tempi are changing often and with it the characters too, just like in the first movement of the Schoenberg. I also love the way both pieces give such clear visions to the listener, yet both were also aiming to be less programmatic and purer in musical substance.

The Five Pieces for Orchestra are quite a fascinating choice for a transcription, given that it is their precise command of orchestral forces which lends it its potency. How did you preserve their power and what are these pieces perhaps even gaining in their new arrangement?
The arrangement is by Felix Greissle, a good friend of the composer and one of the main conductors of the Private Musical Society. Schoenberg was very much aware of this arrangement and therefore must have been content with its outcome. I think one of the reasons for this is because it did exactly what the Society was aiming to do: provide a platform from which to further understand and learn about new works. Already by 1921 the ‘Second Viennese School’ was finding more and more reasons to use smaller orchestras. Schoenberg, in revising the score, clearly saw a reason to reduce the original 1909 orchestra. So I think this leads to the interesting answer to why they were doing this: with a large orchestra the important musical voices are more difficult to hear. With a smaller orchestra those main voices become easier to comprehend. And so with a chamber ensemble I think the listener gains the possibility to understand more comprehensively the structure and narrative of the music. It is those main, primary voices that Schoenberg highlighted in his revised scores that benefit most from this chamber arrangement.

One of the intriguing topics of the mini-Mahler series is to investigate Mahler's and Schoenberg's links to Judaism.
I think both composers saw music as bigger than religion. The Resurrection Symphony is speaking a language far greater than any god known to society. I think both felt that their links to Judaism was as much cultural as it was religious: they may have both seen their music as the “real afterlife”, if you know what I mean.
Our focus in mini-Mahler is more on the reaction to their Judaism rather than their own relationship to it. We must think of the times and places that they each lived in. For example, even though just 14 years separates them, unlike Schoenberg, Mahler was spared the vicious impact of the Nazi era, and with it the opportunity to fully grasp his origins. He did not need to face the necessity of making an uncompromising and ideological political choice.

Schoenberg's series of private concerts was only a moderate success at the time but would turn out to be massively influential over the next decades. How do you rate its ideas and concepts today, at a time when they suddenly seem extremely interesting and refreshing again?
They are interesting and refreshing, yes, but only in terms of the Society’s musical output. I think the idea of wanting to give an audience a more appropriate platform from which to understand new music is a valid one. I also like the idea of no applause and announcements before or after the concert, because I don’t always think that an audience should have to do that – I certainly have no desire to applaud when I hear a great performance: I would rather reflect on it. But of course, all this is only possible in a private setting, and this is actually the determining factor. The reason the Society failed to continue beyond three years is because it didn’t make economic sense. In a perfect world of rich patrons, something like this may have been able to last, but they were entering the real world where the arts was having to rely more and more on private money. So today, of course, something like this would be hard to pull off: how can it be sustained when your paying audience is only able to fill a sitting room?

Did the idea of organising a concert in the exact same style of Schoenberg's Private Society ever come up?
Yes, but it was soon dismissed. We want mini-Mahler to be inclusive, not exclusive. We certainly didn’t like the idea of prescribing rules to today’s open-minded Berlin audience - such as no applause.
The main reason for us rejecting this, however, was musical. The idea of a musical salon/soiree is an attractive one, but in some ways, we felt the Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal would best serve these arrangements both in terms of its acoustics and seating. And it is the music that we’re trying evangelise at the end of the day. Schoenberg’s Society has merely given us a key to doing that.

Homepage: Joolz Gale
Homepage: Berlin Counterpoint
Homepage: Lydia Teuscher
Homepage: Mini-Mahler at Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie Berlin

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