If you were a professional orchestra conductor - or even a professional orchestra - it would behoove you to take steps wherever appropriate to promote the public perception of your musical qualities and talents. As a conductor, if your profile rises you will be retained to conduct ever more prestigious orchestras, on an ever widening basis. As an orchestra, you will attract higher profile conductors, more discerning musicians, and wider touring opportunities. And with a bit of luck, more lucrative recording contracts - although, sadly, such days are coming to an end, if they haven’t already arrived.
One of the most established methods of raising one’s profile is to perform the major orchestral warhorses, specifically the more revered ones. That way you are laying down a body of work that can be compared not only to that of your peers, but also to the greats and not-so-greats who have come before. If you are lucky you might get a chance to lay down a body of your own recorded performances for posterity, and for the cognoscenti to dissect and compare with the great reference recordings of note.
Orchestral warhorses don’t come any more major than Beethoven. There is hardly a conductor or orchestra around that hasn’t laid down a marker in the form of a Beethoven Cycle - a cohesive set of performances of the nine symphonies. In recorded format alone there are hundreds of them. [I’m listening to a 2008-2012 cycle by J. W. de Vriend conducting the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra as I type this. It’s very good - and a stunning recording from Challenge Classics to boot.] Any conductor on a long-term appointment with an orchestra will be itching to embark on a Beethoven Cycle once he feels he has got the orchestra playing the way he wants. Audiences want it too.
Why Beethoven more than any other? After all, Brahms is pretty popular; Tchaikovsky and Sibelius too. What makes a Beethoven cycle the ne plus ultra? Well, the reasons are complicated and profound, and whole books have been written on the subject. But in summary, Beethoven’s symphonies lend themselves perfectly as a vehicle for interpretive examination. They are tightly structured - thematically, harmonically, and tonally. Beethoven revolutionized the symphony as we understand it today - he transformed it from a glorified sonata to a major compositional undertaking which totally and thoroughly expresses a set of particular musical ideas in a comprehensive and structured manner. Beethoven established the symphony as the ultimate vehicle of expression for a composer’s music vocabulary, something not to be undertaken lightly, and something which would form the cornerstone of the composer’s eventual legacy.
He took it in new directions too … take the astonishing discordant outburst about 8½ minutes into the first movement of his 3rd Symphony, written as early as 1804. It was an extraordinarily radical device (although one to which Beethoven himself, curiously, never returned). And of course we can’t ignore the 9th symphony whose revolutionary elements included a choir and soloists (and much else besides), and which was written when the composer was all but totally deaf. Sure, Mozart wrote symphonies, and laid the structural groundwork upon which Beethoven built his edifice. But Mozart penned over 40 of ’em before dying at 32. Haydn cranked the handle too, churning out over 100 symphonies. After Beethoven, though, everything changed. A symphony was now a statement piece.
Arguably, nobody after Beethoven ever mastered the command of the symphonic format so completely (even as they continued to push the boundaries). Take the famous first movement of the fifth symphony: DA-DA-DA-DAAAAH! Beethoven took a seriously simple musical motif and asked what can we do with this? Over the course of just seven minutes he showed exactly what can be done with it. He played it slow and fast, high and low. He expanded it into phrases and contrasted it with a more elaborate melodic line. He wandered from key to key, using the motif to punctuate the changes. By the end of the seven minutes he had neither short-changed us by a single note, nor over-stated his case. We feel we have heard all there is to be said about DA-DA-DA-DAAAAH. It is close to sublime perfection.
Since the dawn of the recording age, the Beethoven Cycle has stood as the standard against which every conductor and orchestra has inevitably been measured. But something strange has happened over the course of the last 20 years. Beethoven has been dumped in favour of Mahler. No longer do conductors and orchestras feel the need to be validated by their Beethoven Cycles; it is now the Mahler Cycle to which they must pay due homage.
The reasons are both simple and complicated, not least of which being the fact that a Mahler Cycle is nearly three times as lengthy as a Beethoven Cycle thereby providing a lot more music to get your chops around. First of all, there are so many exemplary Beethoven Cycles out there that a new conductor coming to the cycle must wonder what is left for him to contribute to the discussion. Secondly, there seems (to this listener at least) to be a convergence of style around the interpretive genius of Carlos Kleiber, with so many recent cycles clearly being heavily influenced by Kleiber’s truly legendary recording of the 5th with the Vienna Philharmonic … and with the HIP (Historically Informed Performance) school of thought being mercifully on the wane. Third, of course, are the attractive merits of the Mahler Cycle itself, and these are compelling indeed.
Whereas a Beethoven Cycle requires the conductor to work within a highly formalized musical structure, allowing (even mandating) the form itself to be a major actor in holding the central elements of the performance together, with Mahler the form is much looser and more nebulous. Easier seen from 30,000 feet than from 30 feet. Much has been made of the notion that Mahler’s symphonies can be viewed individually as movements within some sort of greater symphonic whole. Whereas with Beethoven, form is an attribute of the individual piece - even of the individual movement - with Mahler form can be interpreted across symphonies. A conductor’s interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd, for example, must arguably inform his interpretation of the 3rd, something that makes relatively little sense in the context of, say, Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies.
Mahler’s symphonies are built upon incredible layers of emotional complexity, going far beyond mere programmatic expression. Like actors performing Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” a conductor directing a performance of a Mahler symphony teeters on the edge of a razor blade with a failure to convince on one side, and gauche vulgarity on the other. It is so, so hard to do, and many fall by the wayside. It is tempting to approach these symphonies as being overtly programmatic, and the composer does indicate programmatic themes in most of them, sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly, but for the most part they fail to respond to a formally programmatic treatment, the exceptions being the overarching themes of redemption and resurrection in second and eighth symphonies (which are more themes than programmes per se). The payload from a Mahler symphony is inevitably delivered emotionally, rather than intellectually. Or at least with significantly less of an intellectual content than with Beethoven. We understand Beethoven with our heads, but Mahler with our hearts.
Therein lies both the appeal and the immense challenges in conducting Mahler. Whereas with Beethoven the challenge is heavy on the musical and technical aspects, with Mahler the weight is on the emotional aspect in harness with the vision to hold together and unite a piece which is apt to wander off in unexpected directions. Not only are these challenges appealing to modern conductors and orchestras alike, but the appetite of the public to consume Mahler is apparently insatiable. Modern audiences can’t get enough of it, and as best as I can tell are far more knowledgeable and demanding of a performance than they ever were of Beethoven. The conductor is also more exposed with Mahler - if I am trying to appeal to your intellect I can get away to a certain extent with telling you how good it was, but if I’m trying to appeal to your heart only you can know the extent to which I was successful (even as my ego fails to permit me to acknowledge that).
Finally, there is no Kleiber looming over today’s putative conductors of Mahler. There was a time when it was obligatory to genuflect toward’s Bernstein’s benchmark recordings, and in truth ol’ Lenny played a significant role in the rehabilitation and elevation of Mahler’s reputation to the position it occupies today. But, like a Magnum of Chateau Latour 2010, these incredible symphonies have another 100 years of development left in them, before their interpretations will start to go stale. Today, there are very few new recordings that don’t have at least something interesting going for them, and there are a number of marvellous cycles already in play. Which is the best? Well, there are as many opinions on that as there are people with opinions. Me, I kind of like Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, at least until I listen to one of the others. And since I have about 150 recordings of Mahler Symphonies that’s a lot of chopping and changing.
So, roll over, Beethoven ... and tell Mahler the news!