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Matthew Herbert: "Recomposed - Mahler: Symphony X"

img  Tobias Fischer

Even in the pantheon of music, Gustav Mahler has always been something of a Primus inter pares. When the composer, harassed and heavily criticised at the Viennese Hofoper, left his beloved Austria to depart for the USA in 1907, a group of reportedly 200 people took the trip to the railway station to bid him farewell. Among them were his colleagues Arnold Schoenberg and Alban  Berg, leading painters Gustav Klimt and Alfred Roller as well as various members of the Opera. It was a moment of confusing ambiguity that, by bringing together all but the entire elite of the arts of its era, celebrated European tradition, while at the same time signalling the inexorable tilt of the creative and commercial balance towards the North American continent. No one was more aware of these changes than Mahler and the duality of excitement, disappointment and anxiety further heightened his already imposing presence: When the gaze of Berg's fiancee Helene Nahowski  met his, she looked into a pair of burning eyes that she would never forget for her entire life -the charisma, the physical radiation, the sheer intensity of the composer was perhaps never more palpable than at that particular moment. And yet, a mere four years later, he was lost to the world, having succumbed to a sudden and incurable bacterial infection.

„The fact that Mahler didn't get round to finish a tenth symphony is not just a personal tragedy but one that's impact can still be felt today“, Matthew Herbert writes in the introduction to his recomposed Symphony X and, aspects of glorification aside, that is an accurate assessment. Death is hardly ever fair and Mahler, who seemed to feel its breath with particular acuteness, knew this more than anyone else. But for someone with such a seminal influence on the entire musical world to depart as prematurely and „at the height of his compositional powers“ (as not just Wikipedia has argued), must naturally have consequences beyond the grief and pain experienced by relatives and friends. The argument hinges on the monumental nine-note-chord at the heart of the Adagio, a harmonic construct so dense that it seemed to push right through to a new sphere of sound and musical imagination. In fact, American musicologist Richard Taruskin has convincingly argued that, despite still lacking three pitches, it is, functionally, already completely saturated – thus attaining the state of all-ness an entire generation of musicians had been looking for and enveloping the movement in a breath of distant planets. „Where would he have taken harmony next“, Herbert wonders and it seems a perfectly natural question.

The truth is, of course, that Mahler's quest for maximalism was just as bound to run against its natural limits as anybody else's. And considering the fact that the first public performance of the Symphony took place as late as 1924, when other artists had already offered plenty of intriguing, albeit not always particularly popular, answers, its practical influence on the Avantgarde is easily overestimated. If Herbert's introduction is therefore slightly speculative, his concept is outright inconclusive, as we'll see in a second. At the same time, it is not without its intrigue, either: To him, the Adagio, an object whose creator has long passed away, is itself already in its „afterlife“, having turned into a metaphor for transience. While the music may even today still be as powerful and evocative as ever, it has, so to speak, entered the realms of the historical, where its relevance is limited to a gone-by era outside of our physical grasp. Herbert was fascinated by the thought of being able to listen to it as though the past 100 years had never taken place, as though our ears were still capable of perceiving its grandiose architecture without having been exposed to atonality, dodecaphony and the advent of electronic sounds. His intent was to beam the score straight into the 21st century, giving new birth to it through an act of digital re-contextualisation aimed at establishing connections between the „what is“ and „what was“: Herbert recorded the music playing at various places of biographical relevance, „filling the work“, in his own words, „with ghosts, the tension between the internal and the external, the living and the dead, the present and the past all made real.“

As challenging as this may sound, it is remarkably flawed in its logic, as the concept bears no relationship whatsoever with the actual music on the album. When Killing Joke recorded a track („Exorcism“) off their Pandemonium album in the King's Chamber of Egypt's Great Pyramid, it added to the feeling of complete madness and frenzy. And when Burzum screamed select passages off their 2007-full-length Plague Angel through human skulls, this macabre production technique immediately influenced the very nature of their sound. But recording the Adagio „played out of the window of a passing hearse“, „from the speakers of a crematorium“ or „inside a coffin fitted with car speakers“ is nothing more than just that: Music recorded in unusual places. Its effects can not be discerned through the act of listening as biographical connotations are confused with musical relevance.

The bizarre making-of has unfortunately dominated public debate on the album and has thus done it a disservice. For underneath its veil of controversy, Herbert has recorded a work that is as heartfelt as it is free from any kind of novelty gadgets. His recomposed (or, more precisely, relistened) edit is both a wordless radioplay and a meta-Symphony, incorporating the piece, its reception and potential context all in once. The fact that he focuses exclusively on the Adagio – often interpreted as the single movement which Mahler completely finished in his lifetime – is a sign of respect, as well as a programmatic statement of intent: Only what truly originated from the composer's hand shall be brought back to life. Three time levels are unified here, as the audience is guided from virtual rooms constructed on a 2010-laptop to physical rooms inside which the author is simply listening to music written in 1910 and from there, finally, to unprocessed extracts from Sinopoli's 1987-recording. The movement is sliced, chopped and hacked up into shorter segments, but the piece as a whole feels anything but piecemeal and rather, in fact, as coherent and conclusive as the original. Electronic processings are, for the largest part, subtle and relate to timbre and space rather than the musical material itself – exactly the kind of aspects of a work which Mahler enjoyed focusing on in revisions of his oeuvre and his plentiful transcriptions of other composers' scores.

For almost the entire 37 minutes of its duration, the music is of an ethereal tenderness, caught in a state between this life and the next, its romantic fervor cast in the flickering light of a dying candle. The Leitmotif of the 1910 Adagio is already of a mortuary sweetness, smelling of passion and decay alike, but Herbert takes these qualities to their extremes, all emotions condensing into a single glowing point of light. The maddening, yet tragically consequential climax of these operations, which seemed to take place underneath a blanket of silence, occurs within sight of the finish line, exactly at the point where the increasing tonal complexity crushes screaming and kicking into the legendary nine-note-dissonance. It is a moment taking up no more than a few seconds in Mahler's original, but Herbert stretches it to a hallucinatory minute, cranking up every imaginable frequency, raising the dynamics to ear-spitting level, warping the music, speeding it up and finally morphing it into a terrified techno-beat at the border of insanity. It is in this moment that the music truly fills up with ghosts, spirits and distorted faces entering and leaving its twitching corps like shooting stars at the horizon of a distant galaxy.

What follows is a mere afterthought, the music coming to rest, its body returning to the earth after reaching for the stars. Gradually, silence takes over, filling up the room until all sounds from the past have left and what remains is the pure and undiluted presence. It is a consoling silence, that feels like one would imagine the emptiness of Mahler's compartment as his train is departing Vienna for the last great adventure of his life. Perhaps his glance returns to the platform one more time, where his friends are still waving their handkerchiefs, holding their hands, crying. There, in between Schoenberg, Berg, Klimt and Roller, is the silhouette of Matthew Hebert, looking out over the rails to a point in the distance, where the train is floating from one world into the next, softly guided by the majesty of a gloriously saturated nine-note harmony.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Matthew Herbert
Homepage: Deutsche Grammophon Records

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