Music Exploration

Gabriel Chmura, former Conductor and Music Director (1987-1990)
Franz Paul Decker, former Principal Guest Conductor (1991-1999)

Interpretations of Mahler

"The Score Contains Everything but the Essential"

Comparative listening is one of the ways that I, as a non-musician, increase my enjoyment of classical music. By comparing several different recordings of a particular work, or even certain passages within a work, I can learn a lot about the possibilities hidden within, of the many different ways to make manifest what is implied by the black marks on manuscript paper that constitute a musical score, that reveal the multiple meanings and variegated beauties of the music to the willing and engaged listener. This is an especially interesting exercise when the work in question is a Mahler symphony, in which interpretations can vary widely, indeed, radically. As the iconoclastic Romanian conductor, Sergiu Celibidache, liked to remark, Mahler himself asked, rhetorically: what is contained in a score? The answer: everything but the essential. And as Celibidache observed, beauty (in music or in any other art) is a bait: it hooks us, as it entices us into what lies beyond it, which is truth.

Listening to Gustav Mahler

But back to Mahler. Amongst iconic interpreters, we have the note perfect, icy cool Pierre Boulez at one end of the spectrum and the heart-on-sleeve, gut-wrenchingly emotional Leonard Bernstein at the other. Some conductors bring out the klezmer-like sound of the music, whereas others downplay it . It is thus a particular pleasure to compare, after many years, these two performances of the Mahler Fourth Symphony, performed by the NAC Orchestra. The first of the two was recorded by CBC microphones on October 21 – 22, 1987, with Gabriel Chmura conducting, and with Sylvia McNair as soloist. The second was recorded on April 10 – 11, 1996, conducted by Franz-Paul Decker, and with soloist Edith Mathis. I was at both performances, and recall enjoying each of them immensely at the time. But how do they compare, quite a few years later? For one thing, they occurred at two very different points in my concert-going experience. The Chmura concert was the very first time I had heard any Mahler symphony in concert, while I was living in Ottawa as an undergraduate student. When I heard the Decker performance, some nine years later, and I was recently returned to Ottawa, now as a professor, I had in my “inner ear”, so to speak, many years of concert listening in New York, Vienna, and elsewhere, and many fine Mahler performances that had shaped my expectations: memorable concerts led by conductors such as Solti, Tennstedt, Sinopoli, Abbado, and Rattle come immediately to mind. Thanks to this collaboration between the CBC and the NAC, I have had the opportunity to listen again, with great pleasure, to these two performances, and am happy to report that they stand up well under the scrutiny of careful and reflective re-hearing.

The Difference a Conductor Makes

First of all, both Chmura and Decker have to confront a basic challenge: how to bring off a Mahler symphony with a chamber orchestra? Even with augmented forces, the NACO is nowhere near the “right” size for a Mahler symphony, which requires that the conductor adjust the orchestral balances, lest the winds, brass, and percussion overpower the string choir. This is a danger even with large-sized symphony orchestras; a fortiori, then, for the chamber-sized NACO. The first thing I notice, on listening again to these two recordings, is how well judged are the orchestral balances, in both readings. If you didn’t know that it was the NACO, augmented to, maybe, sixty-five or seventy players (from the usual forty-five), you would think you were listening to a full-sized symphony orchestra of ninety to a hundred players. That in itself is no mean feat, and Chmura and Decker both pull it off brilliantly. The orchestral playing itself, with many opportunities for solo players to shine, is up to the NACO’s impeccably high standards, with superb work, in particular, by the English horn, who has a very exposed and important solo part in the third movement, and by the concertmaster (Walter Prystawksi on both occasions), who has a “sweetly sour” solo providing a running commentary through the second movement. Both soloists, McNair and Mathis, acquit themselves with idiomatic Mahlerian singing, capturing the vulnerability and childlike innocence requisite to bringing off this most ethereal and gentle of all of Mahler’s symphonic finales. The fact that Edith Mathis could pull this off is not, of course, a surprise, being one of the most famous interpreters of this work of her generation – having recorded it, in her younger days, under both Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. In older age, she is still in magnificent voice, and her technique flawless, for Decker. Sylvia McNair need have no fear of invidious comparison, however, as she delivers an equally characteristic and memorable vocal rendition for Chmura.

This leaves, then, the question of the conductor’s interpretation. In the main, both Chmura and Decker adopt a middle-of-the-road approach, eschewing the extremes of either a Boulez or a Bernstein. But, having said that, Chmura is, in my opinion, the somewhat cooler and more reserved of the two, with Decker squeezing more of the emotional “juice” of the work, most notably in the third movement, which is the emotional core of the work. Chmura holds back a bit here, whereas Decker really lets it rip, at the climax of this movement, punctuated by tympani blows that sound like cannonades (superbly delivered by the NACO’s principal tympanist, Ian Bernard). Decker, reminiscent of Klaus Tennstedt, reveals himself here to be a wily veteran, beginning the movement in a deliberately understated manner, incrementally tightening the screws, keeping his powder dry until the crucial moment, and finishing with a blaze of glory, all guns blazing, which allows the final movement to be realized as the healing balm that Mahler intended. In sum, these are two excellent performances of the Mahler Fourth, both of which show off to great advantage the virtuosity and brilliance of the NACO. I am sure that you will enjoy listening to both of them. As to which conductor’s interpretation you will prefer, it is ultimately a matter of taste. For me, Chmura’s is just fine, but Decker’s conjures greatness.

Vivek H. Dehejia

The author, who teaches at Carleton University, grew up in Ottawa, and was first exposed to classical music through the CBC and the NACO, which is why he’s particularly delighted to be writing this essay. He blogs on culture and globalization at He can be reached at .