Last week I caught up with my old mate Rabbi Moses Finkelstein. I like him. With wars and the rumours of wars in the air, he looked battle-scared in the extreme. Mind you, I had warned him not to open the Circumcision Clinic in the Gaza Strip: that ended poorly. And strange to say, his self-proclaimed chaplaincy of Goldman Sachs has been more spiritual than monetary in harvest.
“Bernard, Bernard, Bernard,” he purred, “Ours is the Century of Death and . . .”
“Ronnie McDonald is its prophet!” I said in way of an interruption. No crow appeared in response. “You know me - I don’t buy any of Lenny’s bubbameisse! Mahler should be explainable in his own right, not because of a lacquer of commentary and a maudlin one at that!”
He drew a deep breath and then fired away.
“Mahler said his time would come,” he stated. “It is only after fifty, sixty, seventy years of world holocausts, of the simultaneous advance of democracy with our increasing inability to stop making war, of the simultaneous magnification of national pieties with intensification of our active resistance to social equality – only after we have experienced all this through the smoking ovens of Auschwitz, the frantically bombed jungles of Vietnam, through Hungary, Suez, the Bay of Pigs, the farce-trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel, the refueling of the Nazi machine, the murder in Dallas, the arrogance of South Africa, the Hiss-Chambers travesty, the Trotzkyite purges, Black Power, Red Guards, the Arab encirclement of Israel, the plague of McCarthyism, the Tweedledum armament race – only after all this can we finally listen to Mahler's music and understand that it foretold all. And in the foretelling it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equalled since.”
I sighed. “There are times when, having considered my opportunities, I’m amazed by my restraint. What a meshuggener! It’s chazerei! When I hear that nonsense, it makes me all farklemt! That anyone can believe Lenny and his dreck is beyond me. By the way, I recently listened to Herbie’s Mahler 4 from the late Seventies. Low on schmaltz and kitsch – or as low as they can be – it was not the traumatic event that I had feared. The performance, as far as I can tell, is superb. The Berlin Phil was still possessive of its Klang. The analogue recording is a treat. Edith Mathis is one of my favourite singers: she is sweet but not saccharine in the finale. Nevertheless – and this will lead to a punkt farkert on your part – the Symphony itself has all the sparkle and numinosity of a pond – but one that’s an inch deep. It’s too easily encompassed. The Law of Diminishing Returns, with me at least, is brutal at this point. Why on earth would one listen to it in quick succession? It lays out its cards aglitter and deftly so in the first hand – and then it has nothing left to play! Its kerygma is fathomed with little effort!”
The good Rabbi wagged a finger at me:
“Basically, of course, all of Mahler's music is about Mahler – which means simply that it is about conflict. Think of it: Mahler the creator versus Mahler the performer; the Jew versus the Christian; the Believer versus the Doubter; the Naïf versus the Sophisticate; the provincial Bohemian versus the Viennese homme du monde; the Faustian Philosopher versus the Oriental Mystic; the operatic symphonist who never wrote an opera. But mainly the battle rages between Western Man at the turn of the century and the life of the spirit. Out of this opposition proceeds the endless list of antitheses – the whole roster of Yang and Yin – that inhabit Mahler's music!”
“Setting up a cheap dialectic,” I replied, “is all well and good but the music has to stand on its own two legs nevertheless. Program symphonies ultimately represent a decay of the template – why throw a bridle over any of them? Let the wind blow where it will! Here, I can tolerate the M4 where its innate schmaltz is minimised; this performance gets me over the line but I cannot say that I’m greatly transfigured as a result - nor is there any hunger on my part to revisit it unlike, say, the slow introduction of K 543 which defies the aforementioned Law.”
“Bernard – you’re such a klutz if not a klumnik!”
On that point we were in agreement.