Mahler—what problem?

Mahler 1907

I was stimulated by the fine harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s Alternative Bach series on BBC Radio 3, even if I disputed several of his points. In his new series, My problem with…, he again seems to be assuming the role of provocateur, “dragging the icon to the trash”.

To many, the programme on Mahler may sound like heresy. I can live with Esfahani challenging the idolising of Handel and Mendelssohn—indeed, I keep meaning to pen a similar tirade against Vivaldi’s vacuous four-square footling around with arpeggios. Beethoven too, ably demolished by Susan McClary, seems to me like fair game. The reviews assembled by Nicolas Slonimsky in A lexicon of musical invective make an engaging, comical catalogue of early critics’ incomprehension of the great works of WAM from Beethoven to Stravinsky (including Mahler—see e.g. under Mahler 4); I’m even keen to question the hegemony of WAM generally.

But when Esfahani questions the symphonies of Mahler, I can only assume he’s totally deranged. One might imagine him as some heartless cerebral professor tinkling away on baroque fugues, but far from it.

His five fatuous headings should prompt any music-lover to switch off at once:

  • I can’t remember a single one of his tunes
  • When he decides to write a tune it just degrades into kitsch or schmaltz
  • His orchestrations are consistently bizarre, to no discernible end
  • What’s with all this hypothesising and posing of musical questions…?
  • Mahler’s symphonies are endless…

To each of these questions in turn we may respond “WTF???” (for a similar appraisal of medieval estampies by a church janitor, see here).

Sure, it sounds like fun to ruffle the feathers of generations of godlike maestros (Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado, Rattle, Salonen, and so on and on: see under Conducting: a roundup), scholars like Henry-Louis de La Grange, and pundits like Norman Lebrecht, whose book Why Mahler? makes an engaging introduction (see e.g. here).

While “Esfahani acting dumb” seems like a flimsy peg to hang a programme on, it’s not as fatuous as it sounds. Gradually we gather that he may be playing devil’s advocate, as he shows himself amenable to conductor Joshua Weilerstein’s arguments for the defence. We hear generous excerpts from the symphonies that, pace Esfahani, may even win new adherents to the Mahler fan club; and they have some interesting comments on changing performance practice. Weilerstein uses the 9th symphony to try and dispel Esfahani’s strange incomprehension of Mahler’s visionary orchestration; and one wonders how a sensitive musician can possibly be immune to the profundity of Mahler’s juxtaposition of spiritual and profane. But in the end Esfahani shows himself open to enlightenment.

FFS, just listen to the 2nd!!! The 9th! The 5th! The 6th! The 3rd! The 4th! The 10th!!! Even the 1st! And indeed everything under my Mahler tag!

Perhaps Radio 3 concocted a contrarian tone because they thought yet another eulogy seemed too predictable. Go on then, give us programmes on “What’s the big deal about Bach anyway?”, “Mozart—was he just fooling around?” and “The harpsichord—it goes plunk, it goes plink”… *

The concept is highly reminiscent of Philomena Cunk‘s interview technique (“Did Shakespeare write boring gibberish with no relevance to our world of Tinder and peri-peri fries—or does it just look, sound and feel that way?”).


* The latter borrowed from Clive James’s equally profound survey of Japanese culture

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