I don’t think I’ve never heard Verklarte Nacht played live before. It’s the acceptable face of Schoenberg, predating his shift toward – invention of? – serialism. The BBC Phil, under some Venezuelan wunderkind, did a decent job as far as I could tell; but I was glad when it was over. You can absolutely see why Schoenberg felt he had to get away from that sort of lush, over-ripe language: the music is forever pushing chromatic passing notes into what are already four or five note chords. No wonder he wanted so badly to find a way back to something more astringent and spare. Half an hour is way too long for a strings-only piece like this. The ear notoriously tires of wind and brass much quicker, but lovely though strings are, and ingeniously though Schoenberg strives for variety, I’d had enough after twenty minutes. Verklarte Nacht made me realise how wonderful are the Elgar Introduction and Allegro, RVW’s Tallis Fantasia and the Tchaikovsky and Dvorak Serenades.
I have a theory that every Mahler symphony could be improved by docking 25% of its running time. Listening to the 5th after the break confirmed the impression. The piece makes a very plausible journey from the darkness of the opening Funeral March towards the light of the Finale, stopping off at the Adagietto on the way. The Adagietto is sui generis, a piece of wonderful inspiration, unimprovable. I particularly like the way Mahler makes the final cadence the actual end of the piece, something quite difficult to do without sounding commonplace (something Elgar also achieves at the end of Nimrod, and Sibelius in the middle movement of his own 5th).
My only contact with Mahler 5 as a conductor has been depping for someone else in a rehearsal. You can’t help but admire the way he handles the orchestra (although I think too often the large forces are just used to make the music louder rather than more varied – The Planets uses a big ensemble much better, and Shostakovich 5 is more expertly paced). But too much of the second and third movements sound like filler to me – as if Mahler is writing something because he can, rather than because it’s essential to the musical and psychological argument. And as for the Finale, one waits for the closing chorale in a ritual of tease and denial. The first time you hear it this is effective, but I find repeated listening unbearable. I found myself trying to identify the point at which I started to find Mahler’s modus annoying. It came two iterations from the end: that’s to say on two occasions when he interrupts the apparently inexorable flow of the music towards the big tune I found myself thinking, “O for Christ’s sake get on with it”. That meant enduring two more sections of Mahler’s orchestral babble before – at last – we got to the D major grand finale.
I admire Mahler more than love him, and though I think his view of life is skewed – it is not as heaven-stormingly joyful, catastrophically awful or swooningly romantic as he suggests – I would still have given a finger to have written a piece as bad as his 5th Symphony. When put beside classical music’s realists however – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms and Nielsen – Mahler’s music looks overwrought and self-indulgent. I would have given my right arm to have written the Inextinguishable. I’ve written elsewhere that it’s strange that Mahler’s music should have such currency a hundred years after the death of the romantic movement which spawned it. We live in a narcissistic age however, and God knows Mahler is the narcissistic composer par excellence.
As Roger Scruton once said, criticising someone else’s taste is merely to assert one’s own. I’m not saying Mahler is wrong. I’m saying I don’t like some of the choices he makes, and I think those choices reveal a lot about him as a composer and as a man. I’m reminded of Jean Sibelius’s slightly priggish dictum – “The others offer cocktails of various hues. I only have cold spring water”. After this programme I could have done with some of that. My personal taste is for composers who understand that the audience always need to be reminded of the possibility of silence, who let the light shine through in much the same way as watercolour painters who exploit the whiteness of the blank paper. There wasn’t much of that here. In fact part of the relief of hearing Mahler’s glorious closing chorale was that it one of the only musical statements in the entire concert which sounded plain, simple and true.