Where We Have Been: Movement I – a long slow movement, taking us from despair, into a crisis and then to calm acceptance at the end.
This next movement is a scherzo, which means that it has two contrasting ideas: the “scherzo” section and the “trio” section. What’s most noticeable about the scherzo section (particularly if you are a musician having to play the thing) is the constant shifting of the beat. In most music, you have a regular beat that is used as an underlying “count”. It might be a “ONE-two-three” beat or a “ONE-two-THREE-four” or something along those line. And in a composition, a composer may suddenly change from counting in fours to counting in threes.
But in the scherzo section of this movement, it happens constantly. You might not notice it straight away from listening to it, but if you were to try counting along with it, you’ll notice it.
By contrast, the trio section has a regular “one-two-three” beat. So it’s almost as if Mahler is using the beat of the two sections as a contrast between chaos and order (which is often an underlying theme in many of his movements).
(0:00) The crazy dance begins on the French horns in the Barshai version and then passes over to the strings. Even if you can’t hear the shifting beat, you should still be able to feel the chaos and its shifting moods. Barshai does a great job with his mixture of instruments as well, which also adds a level of variety (he knows Mahler well enough to mix up the full orchestra sound with smaller ensemble / chamber music sounds.) By about the (2:00) mark, it’s almost getting quite jolly. It climaxes with some great clacking sounds and other cool percussion (3:11).
(3:22) By contrast, the trio is quite nostalgic and old school (and has a more regular beat, which helps). Barshai throws in some interesting instruments like a guitar which you don’t hear in other versions of this symphony. It reminds me a lot of Mahler’s classic Disney on Ice music, such as we heard back in the 4th Symphony.
(5:16) Back again for another spin, the scherzo comes in, more boisterous than ever.
(6:13) I love the big see-saw effect on the brass here as the trio comes back in, now even more schmaltzy than last time – lots of solo violin. (I should perhaps stop calling this schmaltzy. I think what Mahler is actually trying to do is include some nostalgia in his music. And in many ways, this is much more gentle than some other symphonies where he takes folksy type of music and makes it sound nasty.)
(7:51) A more laid back version of the scherzo this time, with a nice slowed-down moment at the (8:57) mark. But it soon goes back to the more twitchy version that we’re used to. There’s an interesting moment at (10:08) where it drops back to just a few instruments with a bit of percussion in the background – another Barshai insertion that is only on this recording. Then off to the big climax at (10:47).
So we’ve gone from a long, quiet struggle, now to some chaos, and then when we return next time, we’ll go to a very strange type of Purgatory …