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"Mahler is fascinating: he had within him all the complexity and contradiction of humanity"

The Song of the Earth is proof of Gustav Mahler’s “fascinating honesty” towards music. This is the opinion of award-winning French conductor Sylvain Gasançon, who takes to the stage with Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra this Sunday at CCB. We chatted with Gasançon about the weekend’s programme and the Austrian composer’s genius.

You stated a few years ago in an interview that Mahler is one of your favourite composers. Why is that?
I have changed a lot in relation to Mahler’s music. It’s not that I stopped loving it. I’m still truly in love! But it seems to me much more difficult now to apprehend and to interpret.

Still today?
Yes, still today. Many young conductors, and I was one of them, think that Mahler is so self-evident and linear that it speaks for itself. Now, that is not as true as it once seemed to me. I reached a point in my life that forced me to reconsider and put everything in perspective.

But what has changed in your assessment of Mahler’s music?
One has to say this: Mahler is not what he seems to be. He is much more complex, dangerous to interpret without falling into the temptation of the musician’s ego. Having said that, he is an absolute genius. What I like most about his artistic expression is his complete and fascinating honesty about music.

What do you mean?
You see, there is nothing he doesn’t tell us about his fears, sorrows, joys and so on through music. It is really captivating when you play his music. You can feel the full humanity of this man who had within himself all the complexity, the contradiction of all humanity, at least the Western part of it. He is a kind of life lesson. And truly human.

There are various arrangements of the six songs that form The Song of the Earth. The first of all was done by Gustav Mahler himself, in a reduction for voice and piano. There is also the famous unfinished arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg. In this concert we will hear an arrangement for small orchestra made in 2004 by conductor and composer Glen Cortese. What questions emerge when playing a score that is an interpretation of another work?
I think that the smaller versions allow us to experience other details of that same music. It’s much more of an intimate piece than we sometimes think it is, a huge amount of music, notes and instruments. This particular Lied von der Erde, as is often the case with Mahler, seems telluric at first sight. Certainly, sometimes it is, such is the case with “Abschieds” (“The Farewell”). Perhaps it is much more intimate, close to the heart, like someone saying beautiful words in your ear: it is not a shout, it is a sweet, sad, melancholic declaration of something that cannot be defined in words.

So, how do you simplify these difficulties?
The complexity of interpreting a score like this in a small orchestral version is precisely to obtain that telluric aspect of the music through a reduced number of instruments. Despite what I said before, it is clear that there is a climax in the music that demands a big and intense sound. But as far as its intimate side, this reduced version allows us to express other cambiants of Mahler’s music. So this is a challenge mixed with a renewed vision of the music: it is both exciting and demanding, as our work always is!

In your understanding, is this work closer to a song cycle or to a symphony?
I see The Song of the Earth much more as a symphony, because of the unity of the music, the themes and the fact that Mahler always used symphonic language, if we can say so – it is always dangerous to allow ourselves to call music a language in the common or usual sense – but that would be another discussion. I think that the symphonic aspect of Mahler has to do with the etymology of the word symphony itself: a set of sounds.

But that’s what Mahler is all about…
Exactly. Mahler is full of sounds: sounds of nature, sounds of his childhood, sounds of his own heart beating and so on. Mahler is the definition of sound: he expresses what is impossible to express through music. Better than through words. He himself is a kind of symphonic man. He is an expression of sounds because nothing better than sound, music, can express his feelings.

So, are you saying that there is a unity in this work?
Yes, and that’s why I think it’s more of a symphony than a song cycle. That would mean that each song would express a different feeling. But that’s not what happens. There is a single emotion that ties all the songs together, this whole symphony: the sound of life.