One of the things I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving is that I was able to write this review for the Daily Journal. I got my editor's agreement in advance to my warning that, if I was going to review Mahler's Ninth, I was going to let it all hang out - all the personal baggage and resentment I bring from all the bad performances (including MTT's) of overlong, tiresome Mahler symphonies I've heard in the past, and I borrowed a little from my past posts on the topic. I'm not sure if SFCV would have let me get away with this approach, and I expect I would have gotten a lot of carping in the comments if I had.
Tim Page said in the critical institute I attended last month that it's permissible for reviewers to bring their personal experience into their reviews, but it's rarely necessary. This time I thought it was necessary. I've given anodyne evaluations in reviews before of established "masterworks" that I secretly hated, but they haven't been the whole concert. I couldn't write an entire review that way, but what could I write? The problem when, say, Joshua Kosman reviews Carmina Burana, is that his distaste for the work clouds his ability to evaluate the performance. I think I avoided that.
The summary of the review I put in my cover letter was, "Hated the work. Loved the performance," which makes the headline the editors put on it a little misleading. It's not the work that even Mahler-haters will love, but the group that played it. I was really wondering if Kujawsky's commitment to the work could convince me it was really all it was cracked up to be, but the sheer badness of late Mahler is beyond such saves. While he convinced me it wasn't a sea of featureless nonsense, it still didn't strike me as beautiful or moving, and I'm utterly convinced that it's twice as long as it needs to be.
Following my own advice to not repeat myself endlessly, I cut out a few choice cracks from the review, notably a realization that, by going on and on long after he's finished, Mahler is the Hubert Humphrey of composers. I'm not sure how many people will still get that reference. (David Frye had a routine on one of his records in which Humphrey's conscience despairs at his own speeches. "Thank God, I think I'm finishing at last ... no, wrong again, Hubert.")
But people often say that Bruckner goes on far longer than necessary, yet I adore his work. What's the difference? Well, part of it is that I simply enjoy listening to what Bruckner is saying. Bruckner is spiritual, Mahler is neurotic. Spiritual music nourishes the soul, while the amount of time I want to spend listening to a neurotic composer expressing his angst is strictly limited. But there's also a deep structural difference. Bruckner moves at a slow pace, so his length is commensurate with his content. Even in his adagios, though, Mahler moves at the faster pace of a more typical composer, and consequently he's finished sooner, or ought to be. Instead, he goes on. His works deserve the criticism I've used of a lot of similarly overblown new music, that it's five pounds of music in a ten-pound bag.