Mahler Madness

Caught up in the bottleneck on the way out of the Esplanade concert hall after last night’s Singapore Symphony concert (and I have to say that you can drive across the Causeway quicker than it takes to get out of that auditorium) I was accosted by two elderly ladies who asked me, “What was THAT all about?”. They were referring to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony which we’d just heard. My immediate reply was “Don’t worry about that. It’s not intended for the likes of you or me, but for adolescent boys to enjoy in the privacy of their bedrooms”. This seemed to satisfy them, and, as the congestion eased, they tottered out happy that they were not so out of touch as they had feared.

There is a something approaching Mahler Mania at the moment which is particularly prevalent in this region. Last week the Canadian critic Robert Markow, who wrote the notes for last night’s concert, sent me an ecstatic email pointing out that “after the Mahler Second we attended in Singapore, there was a Mahler 3 by the MPO on the two days following, and another Mahler 3 in Bangkok four days after that. If this were London or New York or Berlin, one could understand the coincidence. But SE Asia?? Just goes to show how things have developed there in the past few years”. I’m not so sure I agree that it shows any measure of “development”; after all he’d probably be even more astonished if he realised that performances of such staple fare of European and American orchestras as Beethoven’s Fifth and Mozart’s 40th are very rare here, and I can hardly accept that Mahler, great composer as he is, stands in the same league as the great Classical giants. Whether you like it or not, you can’t be a concert-goer at any level in SE Asia at the moment and avoid Mahler for very long. We heard Singapore’s amateur Orchestra of the Music Makers doing Mahler 2 not so long ago, the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra is doing Mahler 1 in December, this concert season finds the HKPO doing Mahler 6 and 7, the MPO doing Mahler 9, while the SSO are having their own Mahler Festival with symphonies 4,5,6,7 and 9. True, this season covers both the 150th anniversary of the birth and 100th anniversary of the death of Mahler, and an increase in performances is only to be expected. But what we have is amounting to overkill and, I would argue, is actually doing Mahler – let alone all those genuine music-lovers and concert-goers who do not have unfettered admiration for every note Mahler wrote – a major disservice.

A problem is that Mahler wrote so little: Nine symphonies, a fair chunk of a tenth, and a fistful of songs. Including lost and incomplete works, Groves Dictionary lists just 21 separate works or, if you add together the individual songs grouped in a single publication, 61. Frankly a paltry tally. What makes matters worse is that six of those 21 are very rarely performed, leaving us to celebrate the life and death of a composer with just 15 pieces of music which are themselves ripe with self-quotations and cross references. With the best will in the world, that’s stretching one’s material very thin indeed.

Of course, as Markow points out with some insistence, the shortest of Mahler’s symphonies “lasts nearly an hour”, apparently finding such inordinate length more a badge of honour than an indication of tedium; “This is not music for the faint-hearted”, to which I might add, this is not music for the quick-witted either. Mahler doesn’t use length to expound exhaustively-argued musical ideas or cerebral complexities, but to wallow in lavish, opulent sound.

Mahler loved sound – particularly orchestral and choral sound – because he was first and foremost a conductor. And a conductor’s business is sound. What would he have done had he needed to compose for commercial or professional reasons? For a start, he wouldn’t have spent so much time and effort over each work; you can’t make much of a living when it takes you the best part of 10 years to compose one symphony (that figure based on Markow’s comment that the Fifth, begun in 1901, was properly completed “shortly before his death”). He might also have been compelled by editors and publishers to produce more closely argued and succinct symphonies; symphonies which audiences could take without feeling they have to undergo some kind of preliminary spiritual preparation. He most certainly would have been more economical with his orchestrations, and with economy of resources would have come and economy of sound and a necessary concentration on structure. In short, Mahler’s complete freedom to write what he wanted and without anything other than self-imposed time restraints, was the late 19th century equivalent of the modern-day blogger who can write what he wants at extreme length without the risk of having to be forced by an editor to get his facts right or keep it down to a few hundred words. (oooppps!!)

As an adolescent I adored Mahler. His music spoke to me of those inner feelings of passion, unspoken love and festering emotion which more usually manifest themselves in an outbreak of acne. Having first encountered Mahler in the guise of his 2nd Symphony in a devastating performance by the New Philharmonia under Otto Klemperer in the late 1960s (and I was also present at his monumental last performance of it at the Royal Festival Hall on 26th September 1971), I went out and bought a two-LP set of the work (Ormandy with The Philadelphia) and followed this with recordings of most of the others. I sat in my bedroom with the curtains closed playing these records at full volume and luxuriated in the washes of supercharged sound as I lay on my bed dreaming of whichever young girl had the most recently rejected my clumsy advances. I confess that as I matured I lost my taste for the Fifth, and the Fourth also began to pall, but I continued to enjoy the rest until this wretched Mahler year came along.

With so many indifferent if well-intentioned performances all around the place, not to mention the battalions of blindly worshipping Mahler fanatics who have been crawling out of the woodwork here, there and everywhere to add their bit to the volumes of commentary on just 15 pieces of music, I have been made horribly aware just how fundamentally dreary a Mahler symphony is and how all that hype about it being “conceived on a cosmic scale”, “encompassing the world and the universe”, “seeking answers to questions on the whole existence of man” or “tidal waves of sound sweeping the listener into another world”, is simply covering up the one inescapable fact; a Mahler symphony is too long, too self-indulgent and too loosely constructed to survive without a truly inspired performance.

Spotty youths will see my criticism of their God as not that much different from Pastor whatever-his-name-is’s ill-fated attempt to hold a “Burn the Koran Day”, and orchestral players who labour long and hard over music which is, after all, written for their delectation rather than for an audience’s, will shake their heads and say “typical ignorance from an organist”. But elderly women, at least, can hold their heads up high (osteoporosis permitting) and say to each other over the noise of the hair-dryers; “I told you it was a lot of fuss about nothing”.


2 Responses to “Mahler Madness”

  1. September 13, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    Was a pleasant surprise seeing your name in the byline of the review of the SSO concert on Saturday, so accustomed to your write-ups in the programme notes. Thanks for the two divergent takes in the papers and here. Was a good read.

  2. 2 Cyril Clark
    December 10, 2010 at 3:55 am

    In was in my early twenties that I first discovered Gustav Mahler. His music entranced me then and it still does, 40 years later.
    I was very fortunate to experience that great 1971 London Festival Hall performance of Symphony No.2, conducted by Otto Klemperer. I can see him, frail, but to me still a giant, being gently assisted on to the stage and seated at a desk.
    I felt so priviledged to hear a performance of the ‘Resurrection’ conducted by a maestro who knew Gustav Mahler.
    Sadly, my concert programme has disappeared. I would be very grateful if anyone can tell me the names of the soloists and the choir.

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