Mahler’s open space

Mahler’s open space

Daniele Gatti, returning to La Scala to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, talks about how he believes the Austrian composer's music leaves space for the emotions of the performers

daniele gatti

The Ninth was the first of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies to be conducted by Daniele Gatti at La Scala, for the 2006 Philharmonic season. This year, the Milanese conductor will once again take on one of the greatest symphonic masterpieces of all time with the Scala Orchestra.


CT If I may ask you a personal question: when was the first time you encountered Mahler?

DG In the 1970s, I was a student at the conservatory. My father, who had also studied singing, was a huge enthusiast of opera and symphonic music. Back then, he loved to listen to the radio after dinner. When he listened to something he didn’t know, he would write it down and then buy the record. This is how he discovered Mahler. He was moved by his music and began buying his records. When he bought a new record, I would listen with him. It was our tradition. That was how I discovered Mahler at 13 or 14 years old. I was very young, but I remember Symphony No. 1 conducted by Bruno Walter of which I still have the record, the Fourth directed by George Szell… At the conservatory, the composers I felt closest to were those who played the piano, like Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart. But my introduction to the world of symphonies is because of my father. Thanks to him, I had a chance to listen to even Bruckner and Strauss at such a young age.


CT For some big conductors of the past, Mahler’s Ninth is a point of arrival, a landing pad following a long process of study. Was this the case also for you?

DG I remember maestro Giulini once told me that even a very simple symphony can be extremely gruelling. There are compositions that are so connected to a specific moment in the composer’s life they require an incredibly respectful attitude before they can be proposed and tackled by a conductor. I fondly remember my first encounter with the Philharmonic of La Scala, in spring 2006 with Mahler’s Ninth.


CT Your interpretive approach has changed compared to those years?

DG Everything is always shifting. Life leads us to change, to mature, and thus, to feel a sense of novelty every time – and not just for the great compositions. Our way of studying also changes. Sometimes I will buy new scores because the notes on the old ones no longer say anything to me, and I prefer to start with a blank page, from zero. There are specific songs that remain in your bones that will then “simmer”. And when you return to a score, when you read books that support the musical and technical study, age also plays a part, don’t you think? The life I saw at 35 is not the life I see today at 62. Decisions change, the choice of certain tempos over others, a preference of colour or phrasing of a certain type; in other words, everything that the career of a musician involves.


CT Mahler, as we know, has always tried to avoid a content interpretation of his symphonies, eliminating, for example, the explanatory notes he had written for his initial symphonic pieces, trusting instead that one could solely rely on what the music suggests. But for his Ninth, we have the performance by Alban Berg – whose perspective was certainly close to that of Mahler – who speaks of a symphony focused on the premonition of death. Do you also believe that this is the most characteristic element of the Ninth?

DG We know that Berg particularly loved the first movement, which he described as the most powerful written by Mahler in all his symphonies. I must agree with him, for whatever my opinion is worth next to that of a giant of music. Let’s not forget that Mahler couldn’t rehearse nor perform this symphony. Therefore, he couldn’t review it after the first performance, as he did regularly with his other symphonic compositions. The Seventh, whichwas the subject of major changes between the first draft, first performance and beyond, shows us a composer full of doubts. In Prague, overcome with insecurity, he removed orchestral parts from the music stands after rehearsals and took them to his hotel to correct them. In the Ninth, Mahler didn’t have a chance to make corrections. I wonder, for example, if he would have modified the final lines of the first movement, where he has the piccolo play a very high note and the cellos a harmonic sound, creating a serious problem with intonation. Or if in the long and almost ghostly cadence of the flute and horn solos, punctuated by the basses – the most enigmatic page of the symphony, arriving almost unexpectedly – Mahler noted a simple line or truly wanted to make the passage mysterious. It’s difficult to say whether you can hear death hovering in the Ninth. The structure of the four movements definitely recalls Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, in which the sense of death is very present.


CT Another issue poses problems of exegesis: in the Ninth, alongside the premonition of death is the element of irony typical of Mahler symphonies: quotations, reminiscences of popular or even vulgar repertoires, such as fanfares, dances, childish motifs, funeral marches, but also the stylistic distortion of Viennese waltzes or the Ländler with shifted rhythmic accents. What meaning do these “out of context” elements have in a symphony like the Ninth?

DG These are typical elements of this composer; however, his writing becomes more and more just pure music. While Symphony No. 1 has its own theatricality, and the same can be said of the Third, after the Fourth, Mahler moves toward a language of greater musical purity. Thus, it is difficult to detect a kind of theatricality in the pages of Symphony No. 9.

Returning to the First, without any superficial musical descriptivism, in the first movement, there is a drive, a musical accelerando that reaches the spring-like explosion, the collective dance of the second, and then the funeral march. These are elements that move away from the category of pure, self-referenced music and into a kind of theatricality. Perhaps the turning point comes with Symphony No. 7, which is still the most enigmatic for all of us, the most difficult, the one for which we struggle to find an interpretive direction. In terms of language, it is the one that suddenly leads toward what the Vienna School would later make its own, the sum of fourth intervals that preludes dodecaphony and opens up a new world.


CT What are the major challenges for a conductor tackling a Mahler symphony?

DG It is when Mahler writes whatever he wants that things become more difficult. It happens, for example, when he notes to choose the tempo of a movement: sometimes he is so rich and gives you such freedom, a margin of interpretation so wide that it becomes a challenge. What does Allegro, non troppo, ma con passo cadenzato mean? Of course, then the answers also come from the music, from its internal pulse. But it is also true that some "forcing" can lead to a tension-filled musical interpretation. Because of the difficulty of interpreting what is perhaps uninterpretable, the conductor, if they believe they have understood a message within the score and force the tempos in one direction or another, needs the help of the audience, which is not passive and expects a certain kind of interpretation, to travel a path that otherwise becomes very arduous. Mahler's notes are difficult to interpret because each of us has our own ethical and musical sense, according to which an adjective might offer an idea of that passage. The greatest difficulty therefore lies in the maximum freedom that we are apparently allowed, and that forces us to always doubt ourselves.


CT How do you reconcile, given your international experience, the sound and performance approach of Italian orchestras with a repertoire like that of Mahler, which seems rather distant from their tradition? Are there any particular difficulties of practical implementation, on the technical or interpretative level?

DG No, I don’t believe so. The last Italian orchestra I performed Mahler with was the Rai Orchestra in Turin, in January 2020. It was also Symphony No. 9. I also conducted other Mahler symphonies with the orchestras of Florence and Santa Cecilia in Rome. Italian orchestras now have Mahler in their repertoire, and as for the question of sound (important, but about which I am always very sceptical), a large orchestra "modulates" it according to an expressive need. The Wieners consolidated their Mahlerian sound through the work of Leonard Bernstein in the 1960s. We have the sound of the Concertgebouw, where Mahler himself went to “sow" his own music. We have the sound of the New York Philharmonic, whom Mahler worked with in the final years of his life. He is a composer who can be performed very well by different orchestras because he offers the possibility of a free interpretation of the marks and progression. Every conductor, every orchestra, every soloist feels a little freer. That is why for ten performances we have ten different impressions. I can say that, stylistically, Mahler is a composer with no style. We are a little chained when we perform Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, a little freer in phrasing when we perform Brahms or a Schumann symphony. But with Mahler, we are given the impression that our sensibility has more space. It, however, must still be guided by an interpretive idea, or plan.

Claudio Toscani
Translation by Alexa Ahern