To Any Lengths

Gustav Mahler has some goddamn chutzpah. Envious of my general good feelings at the evening’s start, he rams a solo trumpet into my ear to kick off his Fifth Symphony. “These are my neuroses, my Weltkvetch,” he screams at me through the agency of a zillion-member symphony orchestra, “and you will pay attention or else.” On and on he rants: one movement very sad, another movement marked “with utmost vehemence” (and, boy, does he mean it!), a third movement that has the utter gall to chew on the same indigestible wad for a good — no, make that “bad” — 20 minutes. Comes then a moment’s relaxation, a sublime, quiet slow elegy, but it’s over almost before it begins. Then comes a ludicrous finale that transforms the melody from that divine slow movement into a ludicrous travesty of itself.

Basically, I resent Mahler’s right to assume my interest in his personal hang-ups, as he pins me to my seat and hammers an endless enumeration into my long-suffering eardrums. This just might be a minority report, of course, although I won’t swear to it. Long may I argue that 75 minutes of Mahlerian Weltschmerz might not be the most appropriate entertainment for a pleasure-seeking audience on a balmy night at the Hollywood Bowl. Yet there were 6,000-plus merrymakers last Tuesday night, applauding and cheering like a bunch of sozzled hedonists, happily anchored in the opposite opinion.

Sure, the Mahler Fifth has its champions. (Even more strange to relate, so do the Sixth and the Seventh.) It starts magnificently; its opening trumpet solo could waken the dead, and is probably meant to do just that; the ensuing drum beats are like rushes of blood. The tension soon dissipates; Symphonies Two and Three also begin that way, but hold on more firmly in a grip more icy. Number Five, to these ears, is more diffuse. An hour passes, then comes the one genuine marvel, the ethereal Adagietto like a vapor trail, so brief that we virtually hear it as a double take. But the grotesque finale profanes that one tender memory; you even wonder whether Mahler himself recognized the beauty of his quiet creation.

Under Leonard Slatkin, and with the Philharmonic in reasonably responsive condition, the Fifth came across with no major commitments, no egregious sins. I do mourn the passing of the portamento in Mahler performances, the swoop from note to note in his eloquent melodic string writing, notated in the composer’s own scores and preserved in old recordings by conductors familiar with the style — Bruno Walter’s performance of the Fifth with the New York Philharmonic and a treasurable performance by Willem Mengelberg of just the Adagietto.

Leonard Bernstein’s so-called Mahler revival in the 1960s involved a certain amount
of laundry work, and one of the results was a wholesale scrubbing-out of the old
performance styles. Most of all, portamento was banished as unclean, sentimental
feh. This attitude merely betrayed an ignorance of this important aspect
of Mahler’s expressive principles and Mahler’s own carefully detailed means of
achieving them. (As I remember, Salonen’s per-formances and recording of the Fourth
Symphony do a better job than most in honoring Mahler’s markings.) Slatkin’s performance
of the Fifth the other night was a fair example of the contemporary-bloodless
approach: very clean, very nicely detailed, with not a moment’s appeal to the
tear ducts. There was a lot more meat to be carved, in fact, from Slatkin’s nicely
controlled reading of Ives’ Three Places in New England, which began the
program, with the multiple marching bands of General Putnam’s Revolutionary Camp
nicely set apart.

Slatkin Territory

Slatkin’s presence at the Bowl, in the newly created post of principal guest conductor for the summer seasons, continues a long family connection extending back to early sound-studio days and arousing memories of wonderful chamber-music performances as well. Start with Eleanor Aller, born to Russian immigrants in New York in 1917; her grand uncle, Modest Altschuler, headed an orchestra of Russian expatriates that gave first American performances of music by Scriabin and Mussorgsky and toured with the newly arrived Rachmaninoff. The Allers — all of them musicians — immigrated to California in 1933, on word (which proved true) of employment in the studios. There Eleanor met the St. Louis–born conductor Felix Slatkin; they were married in 1939, and gave birth to the first Hollywood String Quartet (half of it, anyhow) soon thereafter. They also gave birth to Leonard and to Fred, who has gone back to the old family name of Zlotkin. Fred Zlotkin is an active freelance cellist in New York; you can hear him in the pit at the New York State Theater, and on the latest Cyndi Lauper disc, among dozens of others. He sent me an old video of the Hollywood Quartet in action. Watching Eleanor Aller playing the eye game with her three colleagues tells you everything you need to know about chamber music.

World War II brought on several personnel changes in the original Quartet. The ensemble that came together in 1945 — Slatkin and Aller, with Paul Shure and Paul Robyn in the center positions — soon became recognized as one of the great quartets of the time, the more so for the rarity of its being entirely American-formed. During my student days in Berkeley, the Hollywood Quartet’s frequent visits were a major part of my own musical discoveries. A Sunday that began with a hike on Mount Tamalpais and ended with the Hollywoods (plus guests) performing Hindemith’s Third Quartet, the Schubert C–major Quintet and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is a memory I need very little chemical assistance in reliving.

The Hollywood String Quartet disbanded in 1959, leaving happy memories to folks of my generation and a fair number of recordings (on the Testament label — in mono, but so what?) to everybody else. They include my favorite of all versions of the Schubert Quintet (with the cellist Kurt Reher); performances of the last Beethoven Quartets so close to unsurpassable as never mind; and a disc of Kodály, Smetana and Dvorák Quartets that tells me, in a language beyond words, exactly what it means to be in love with music, and with the ability to bring it to life.

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