Pounding out the right beat for Mahler

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How many times can a hero get back up after being knocked down? Rocky Balboa picked himself off the canvas numerous times, and Charlie Brown brushed off the grass time and again after Lucy pulled that football away.

The heroes written into the scores of classical music compositions (how's that for a transition?) can be resilient, too. Symphonies are often meant to be read metaphorically as struggles against fate or obstacles. Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth knocks its protagonist down repeatedly before it ends victoriously. The principal character implied in Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Sixth ultimately gets cut down, hence the subtitle, "Pathetique."

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's music director Manfred Honeck loves to push the envelope to bring out these underlying programmatic stories, especially those of the prominent Viennese composer Gustav Mahler. The last concert of the 2011-12 season gave him a particularly fruitful opportunity with performances of Mahler's Symphony No. 6.

In Mahler's nine completed symphonies, only one doesn't end well for the main character, whether it be an earthy victory or a spiritual transformation. That exception is the aptly named "Tragic" Symphony, the Sixth, finished in 1904. But "finished" is a relative term for Mahler, who repeatedly revised his works following their premieres. Symphony No. 6 went through a particularly crushing revision, so to speak.

The finale of the "Tragic" calls for an intimidating, large mallet -- the kind used in those iconic vertical strength tests at carnivals -- to strike a large wooden box. The blows come at climatic moments when the hero seems to have prevailed over great struggles. The PSO had to build a "hammerbox" for the purpose. The sound is less loud than it is reverberant, and when held by both hands by percussionist Andrew Reamer, the flying hammer gets the point across visually, too. "It is the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled," his wife, Alma Mahler, recalls in her memoirs. "Those were his words."

Yet the printed score calls for only two "hammerschlage" or "hammer blows," not three. It appears that the famously superstitious Mahler removed the final one after the premiere in Essen, Germany, in 1906. Others have suggested he took it out for musical reasons that less is more.

For years conductors abided by the printed score, but after the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti began including the third strike, it has gained popularity and credibility.

Those who attended the performance of the Sixth in Heinz Hall on Friday, June 15, however, heard five strikes. It turns out that in his autograph -- or handwritten -- manuscript of the symphony, Mahler placed five hammerschlage! The plot thickens. On Saturday and Sunday, June 16 and 17, Mr. Honeck performed the Sixth with two hammer strikes. It led to bit of confusion among some patrons.

"I was very impressed by the energy of the five hammer blows, and I could imagine what the original thoughts of Mahler must have been," Mr. Honeck said after the concerts. "On the other hand I also understood the limitation to only two of them, as he expected more effect in this way. For me it was a great experience."

Mr. Honeck's most creative musical endeavors at the helm of the PSO have been his Mahler performances. He relishes revisiting the context in which Mahler wrote these huge works, most often that of the folk music milieu that was well-known in Austria at the time but largely lost today or at least disregarded. He constantly experiments with these and other elements of the music in the name of bringing out the drama inherent in these works. He couldn't help trying out how the work would sound with all five, how it enhances or detracts from the underlying program. It's the sort of attention to detail that Mr. Honeck is known for in Mahler, but it is especially critical because the performances were recorded for the latest in the PSO's celebrated Mahler cycle on the Exton label, to be released likely in the 2012-13 seasons.

"I will again listen to both versions and will decide which one I will use," he said.

Either way, it will strike a chord in classical music circles.

The PSO's CDs of Mahler's Symphonies Nos. 1-5 are available at www.pittsburghsymphony.org. The Sixth


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings.


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