London and Berlin: Mahler 6 with the BPO and the one that got away

GermanyGermany Mahler: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle. Recorded at the Berlin Philharmonie, 20.6.2018.

Sir Simon Rattle

Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor

It had all the makings of a memorable evening: a stroll by the River Thames; a leisurely supper with a long-time friend; then a slow shuffle to the Southbank auditorium to hear and see the splendid San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas leave us awestruck with a definitive Mahler Sixth Symphony. Some things, however, are not to be. You cannot reclaim the memory of something that didn’t happen; and, owing to the worldwide curse of coronavirus, the SFSO’s spring tour was understandably cancelled. Well, really, it was nobody’s fault.

By the Saturday evening of the concert date, it had occurred to me that I could still experience a Mahler Sixth and, even better, I could choose the performers. All I had to do was connect an ingenious Chromecast device to my widescreen TV, access the internet and trawl through any number of complete YouTube concerts to find one that appealed. For a while I had wondered about the Andrés Orozco-Estrada Sixth with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, for the Frankfurt ensemble are, in my opinion, quite superb, and their videos are first-rate. Then Ken Ward, who was to have been my Royal Festival Hall companion, told me that for a limited time the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra were offering free access to their excellent digital concert hall programme, which seemed to warrant exploration. There I found my ultimate choice, Sir Simon Rattle’s farewell to the BPO – as principal conductor – and his Mahler 6 at the Philharmonie (click here), some thirty years after he first conducted that symphony in Berlin. Decision made.

Which meant, of course, that I had the luxury of reclining on the sofa with my music-loving dog beside me (they don’t allow dogs in the Festival Hall, lest, unable to read a score, they bark in the wrong places) and a glass of Merlot to soothe my nerves as the maelstrom unfolded. It wasn’t as good as being there, no, but I had set my heart on an evening of Mahler and that was what was delivered. I felt content.

Somehow, although I have written previous concert reviews for the UK Mahler Society’s The Wayfarer, I feel uneasy about reviewing a 2018 concert I did not actually attend. This one, in any case, must have been reviewed a hundred times before. So, did I enjoy the performance? Hmm. The trouble is, I always feel that if I went along to a Mahler Sixth and enjoyed it, something must have gone wrong, either with me or with the performers. This particular symphony, surely, is not meant to be enjoyed, so much as experienced and accommodated. It is supposed to send us home reflecting sombrely upon our fortunes, good and bad, and where we stand in the great scheme of things. After 80 or more minutes of semi-darkness and uncertainty, I can understand why David Matthews, writing in The Mahler Companion, expressed his bafflement that, once those final drumbeats had died away, the audience could somehow bring themselves to applaud, when silence would seem to be the only suitable response.

I did applaud, however. Daisy, my dog, squeaked her approval. We waited first for Sir Simon to savour the frisson and slowly lower his baton, and I was grateful to the Berlin audience for doing the same. Beware – ‘hobby horse’ coming up – all too often nowadays concertgoers completely ignore the fact, as I believe it to be, that once the music has finished, the conductor is conducting the audience. If he (or she) is standing motionless with both hands in the air, the performance is not over. On too many occasions there sits in the shadows an idiot who thinks it clever to yell ‘Bravo!’ a split-second after the last note has sounded or who thinks it both wise and self-serving to be the first to clap. This is like stuffing the last potato in your mouth, throwing down your fork and leaping up from the restaurant table to the consternation of more discerning diners. It is simply bad manners – and lately, to my dismay, I note that even some BBC Proms audiences are adopting the habit.

Very well, I should at least make a few observations in regard to the BPO’s Mahler 6 under the redoubtable Rattle. For me, he generally ‘does’ Mahler as I like to hear it; my point being, I suppose, that in my book a good conductor is one who gets the orchestra to play the music as I like to hear it played. Rattle’s tempi I find agreeable and he exudes enthusiasm and commitment on stage without appearing flamboyant. In this particular performance, he did not disappoint. As for the Berliners, who in fact do not have as long a tradition in Mahler as one might suppose, they were exemplary, and I thought the woodwind section were utterly wonderful. Mindful of Mahler’s peerless writing for woodwind, this made for a glorious performance. Those there are, I know, who have sometimes accused the Berlin orchestra of sounding overly polished, and I accept that, contrary to the natural expectation, this can diminish some composers’ works. I rather doubt that Mahler intended his Sixth – or, for that matter, many of his symphonies – to sound glossy, but given the extraordinary complexity of the Mahler 6 orchestration, it seems churlish in the extreme to challenge the BPO’s overall approach when their skill and flawless ensemble were so impressive.

Rattle conducted the symphony without the score, which is a great feat of memory, although I tend to view this habit with some disaffection. Conductors are human; it can all go wrong. Conduct it balancing on one leg, why don’t you? He used the format of Andante second and Scherzo third, which appears to be the most favoured sequence these days – though the arguments as to which arrangement, by the end of his days, Mahler really wanted can only remain unresolved. The third and final hammer blow, inevitably, was not included – does anyone play it now? – and while the composer was convinced that the deletion should stand, I personally rather like the effect of the final crash. Interestingly, on my shelf I have, among other Sixths, Benjamin Zander’s recording with the Philharmonia, in which he offers us two versions of the immense Finale, one with two hammer blows and another with three. Democracy in music, perhaps?

There you have it. No-one would have expected the San Francisco orchestra to visit in such perilous circumstances as were presented by the coronavirus pandemic. They were missed, but the music was, in a sense, inescapable. I asked Ken Ward if he had done the same as me that night, and he replied that the gloom surrounding the pandemic had deterred him from tackling a Mahler Sixth just then. Fair enough, when you think about it. This symphony is a thing of wonder in many ways, but it is pessimistic, harrowing and unrelenting in its clamorous darkness. It tells us much of Mahler the man as well as Mahler the musician, and I think perhaps, if we take it to heart as surely we should, it tells us also about the darker mechanisms inside ourselves.

Craig Brown

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