Francis Ford Mahler's Sixth

Sixth Symphony By Gustav Mahler Claudio Abbado with the Chicago Symphony Deutsche-Grammophon

EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY, for tomorrow we...hear Mahler's Sixth.

Mahler's "Tragic" symphony ends like Apocalypse Now. It is perhaps the most terrifying chord in all music. Mahler (1860-1911) gave more than a ten-minute appearance however (unlike Brando). His wife Alma said in her letters that the Sixth is autobiographical, like most of his other symphonies. Mahler has the last word in romantic program music--music that suggests events and images. No other composer has chosen the same hero.

An A major chord trumpeted by the horns wanes into an A minor chord, and the reiteration of this three-second transformation during the hour-and-a-half of Abbado's new Deutsche-Grammophon recording with the Chicago Symphony warps the texture of adventure, love and almost militant drive and power until the five angels ascend, Wormwood falls, locusts emerge from the great pit, or--is it possible to compare--Brando gets what he deserves. The Pentagon might object to this violent death, or respond by sending in troops of its own. Mahler, who became a Roman Catholic in 1997, seven years before he completed the symphony, does not even give his hero a priest for the last rites.

The lightning strikes and we do not hear a thing about the 144,000 who live.

The Chicago Symphony plays chimes, cowbells and celesta (a cross between a harpsichord and a xylophone) that give the impression of mountains and lakes at Maiernegg, where Mahler composed. The first three movements suggest rest and relaxation. Two children make castles and zigzags in the sand in the Scherzo. The kids are Mahler's, according to Alma.

But we go deeper and darker up this river that snakes through the jungle like a bird--the "silly little bird" of Heart of Darkness--trailing like a serpent. Mahler's dense harmonic texture surrounds the flow, but does not stagnate it. Joseph Conrad, a riverboat man himself, especially in his Malaysian period, would have liked this bastard child as much as a trip to Nam.

The rolls of the snare-drum take over in the Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Mahler describes in a correspondence the hero of this last movement: "Oh him fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled." Once the seven sceptres at Armageddon come out of the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony, the scythes they raise deliver a cruel final stroke.

The horror! The horror!

Play the record over a span of two days or your life will seem too short.

ABBADO HAS A WEAKNESS for airy tunes played on glockenspiel and celesta. The tunes come and go between martial rhythms. Young Gustav, fascinated by the military, could never quite part with his recollections of parading soldiers. The march was to Mahler what the Ring of the Nibelung was to Wagner.

Mahler's death images in the finales bring to mind something Seneca once said--art collectors, sportsment and those preoccupied with music confront an untimely death. (Mahler's daughter died, incidentally, three years after he composed the "Tragic," and he got his three years later.)

The composer cried after the premiere of his work. His passion for life and love, and the impending doom he felt achieves palpability in the percussion's pulse, the woodwinds' C minor arias in the third movement, and the brass' blues. Abbado's interpretation, whether instinctive or well-planned, hits the mark just like Bernstein, who pioneered the performance of Mahler's symphonies for concert-goers.

Ineffable pianissimos anticipate the loud reveilles and marches. Even Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony (on London) cannot make the airs as sweet as Abbado does. If Solti got high with the Chicago before the 1970 release of his recording, Abbado, hardened by years of vicissitudes from fighting Mahler's Sixth, conducts the same troops ten years later with discipline and clear command.

Cowbells, resuming the creche-like tunes of the earlier movements, tantalize the hero in the finale. The mood, once inspired, intense, becomes introverted and tenacious. Mahler returns to C minor after the third movement's maundering for a thread of unity. In fact, this is the only symphony of Mahler's eleven in which he uses the classical return to tonic.

Some listeners may not like Mahler's aesthetic in the first three movements. But anyone who tripped watching 50 helicopters roaring in with Ride of the Valkyries to get the "slopes" can't miss Abbado's finale. Get in a bathing suit and ride the surfboard on cue. Mahler, too, enjoyed swimming.

But ask not on whom the machete falls. It falls on thee.