*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*
There’s nothing to beat the atmosphere of a Mahler symphony at the Proms. Following the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 10th symphonies this season, I just went to hear the 6th, with the amazing Vienna Phil under Daniel Harding.
Hot on the heels of the equally fine Concertgebouw orchestra in the 4th symphony, the Vienna Phil sounds like an enormous marshmallow cake, with individual personalities smothered in Schlagrahm—apart from the cowbells, evidently from a large herd. Notwithstanding changes in performance practice over the past century, standing beside recent early-music versions of such repertoire, venerable orchestras like this convey a tangible feeling of direct continuity with tradition.
And the Vienna Phil is even belatedly allowing a handful of women into its ranks—whatever next? * Here they are with a bearded Bernstein, c1977:
Here’s Barbirolli’s 1967 version with the New Philharmonia (as the old Philharmonia was then known):
There’s the usual lengthy debate about the position of the exquisite slow movement (unfairly eclipsed by those of the 4th and 5th symphonies, I feel). In line with Mahler’s own rethink, Harding put it second, but I side with those who overrule the composer’s revision of the order—not so much for the argument of the tonal scheme, but rather so that the Scherzo can continue the demonic power of the first movement (as in the 5th symphony), the slow movement then making its full impact before the devastation of the finale. Christoph Eschenbach makes this argument in an interesting page where various conductors reflect on all the symphonies.
God, how I’d love to get stuck into passages like this again (from 1.10.39 on the Barbirolli version, responding desperately to the hammer-blow):
* Historical note: I often chose Bernstein’s Mahler performances with the Vienna Phil, but it won’t necessarily strike the casual listener/viewer that there’s something else remarkable about the orchestra. It’s one of several orchestras that haven’t exactly led the way in gender equality: permanent posts were only given to female musicians in 1997, and even by 2013 the orchestra only had six female members. Historically authentic, sure, but…
“I dunno, where’s it all going to end, eh? They’ll be demanding control over their own bodies next. PC gone mad if you ask me.”