Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian plays bass in an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

In Praise of Purgatory


Last week we played, among other things, the Adagio from Mahler's unfinished 10th symphony. For health reasons Pierre Boulez had to withdraw from two weeks of conducting, passing the baton onto Cristain Macelaru and Asher Fisch. Another notable piece on offer was the Bartók Divertimento for String Orchestra, which has had a notable history in our orchestra, particularly for the bass section, but about which I can write absolutely nothing.

Although my fondness for Mahler's music has gone up and down over the years, the 10th symphony has always been a favorite. As a youngster in the early 1970s, I had the good fortune to be part of what I think was at the time a very rare early performance of the performing version by Deryck Cooke. The mystique behind the piece captivated me - Mahler's supposed obsession with death, the poignant funeral procession for the New York fireman which passed below his hotel window. The sensationalism behind that performance also made a lasting impression. All sorts of die-hard Mahlerites flew into town to hear a rare performance. Moments before the concert, a mysterious gentleman pressed one of Mahler's batons into the hand of the conductor, insisting he use it for the concert.

The whole controversy about whether or not any of the existing the performing versions of 10th symphony  should be performed or not never affected me. Strangely, the 10th symphony was the first piece by Mahler I ever heard. When I went back to listen to some of his other music, particularly the early stuff, I was kind of bewildered and disappointed. Without getting into a debate about whether the 10th is really Mahler or not, I can certainly recommend the Adagio 1st movement. And then there is the other movement Mahler finished (mostly) before his death, the odd little movement entitled Purgatorio. At about 4 minutes, I'm pretty sure its the shortest symphonic movement Mahler ever wrote - I always seem to like the shortest pieces by composers otherwise dedicated to gargantuanism. This tiny movement which sits in the center of Mahler's symmetrical structure for the 10th symphony - Adagio, Scherzo, Purgatorio, Scherzo, Adagio - has always been a favorite of mine. Perhaps it has something to do with the prominent role of the double basses. I remember being completely flummoxed by the bass part as a 13 year-old. At the very end of Purgatorio, after a harp glissando that is like Beelzebub himself appearing out of cloud of smoke, it is the basses who usher the listener to the inferno.

For those unfamiliar with the performing version of the 10th symphony, there is a fine performance by the Concertgebouw on YouTube - just search for Mahler 10/Concertgebouw. (Purgatorio begins at about 36:45) There is an interesting article about the piece, here.

Thanks to all who offered condolences, either in person or electronically.

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