Pierre Boulez conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Mahler's 7th symphony
Last night I was back in the year 1909. The year in which Mahler's 7th symphony premiered and the year in which Anton Webern wrote his 6 pieces for orchestra. I heard music which at that time was modern, trying to distance itself from the era that was behind: the 19th century. I heard the breaking away from the Romantic age, the overcoming of the classical giants on whose shoulders it stood. The music of a century ago sounded, how shall I put it, dated in a modern way. But what was modern then isn't automatically easier for the ears nowadays, and that's certainly true for Webern's orchestral pieces which, vulnerable and small, were at first mainly the signal for a few visitors to scrape their throats and cough. The phenomenon is as old as giving concerts but it remains annoying as ever. From the pianist Arthur Rubinstein comes the joke that people with the flu in Tel Aviv are not summoned to bed by their doctor but are prescripted a visit to the concert hall. Maybe we should make the thoughts flexible enough to hear the coughing, in the spirit of John Cage, as part of the music. Anyway, I couldn't do that yesterday.
What Pierre Boulez did with Wagner he also does in the music of Mahler. Like a drop of water in a glass of Talisker-whiskey he opens the taste and shows us the layers. Boulez's Mahler is precise and transparent. The orchestral sound remains open at all times. You keep hearing all the instruments during the tutti. It's a Mahler for the head, more than for the heart. Boulez presents the architecture and the arrangement of Mahler's ideas. A collage of marches and folk tunes captured in new sounds. There are ideas on display and to what extent they interact with the listener's feelings is left entirely to the listener itself. No tempo and volume adjustments to s(t)imulate drama and emotion. As a conductor he is the counterpart of the Bernsteins and Solti's of this world. And also the diametrically opposite of the Mahler that I heard Kreizberg unleash on the ears of the Concertgebouw audience a year or so ago. That was a Mahler straight out of the gym. The Mahler of Boulez is also trained and moulded but in other regions of the human body. Boulez's Mahler massages the brain that, in finding comfort in order, illuminates the heart.
The link between Mahler's 7th and Weber's orchestral pieces made it clear how modern Mahler already was at this time. He really stood at the beginning of the twentieth century. Bruckner and Brahms were very far away yesterday. They stayed behind in the nineteenth century. Yesterday was the evening of a new era. The new time of a hundred years ago.
We are now a century further and the soundtrack of modern times may sound not primarily in concert halls but out of ghetto-blasters and iPods. With Europe, at the beginning of 2011, crawling out of the aftermath of the Second World War, definitions of good and evil might need conformation and/or recalibration. We are entering a new, exciting time of which the next decade will determine what the 21st century will look like.
With the passage of time comes the realization that with change, things get lost and that those losses can feel irrevocable. It is up to the man in the present time (the only time in which a human being can truly live) to make up the balance between gain and loss, to identify that loss and, if necessary, to lament it. With the sounds of the Concertgebouw Orchestra wandering through Mahler's cathedral of sound of a hundred years ago, I think of the comfort of hindsight. The contemplation of a modern time of which one knows the future. The future had two world wars in store for "this modern age of the past", and a cold war for dessert. It makes me long for a future that is comfortably boring.