Mahler – what conductors tell me

Mahler – what conductors tell me


norman lebrecht

February 14, 2010

By some intuitive affinity or massive failure of imagination, both Gramophone and BBC Music magazine asked ’10 leading Mahler conductors’ to explain in their current issues what his symphonies mean to them.

Three maestros – Zinman, Jansons, Tilson Thomas – took part in both features. The rest included most of the usual Mahler suspects with the exceptions of Abbado, Boulez and Barenboim, who must have had better things to do with their down time.

The banality of what these conductors write, or recite into a reporter’s machine, is mind-boggling: ‘The final movement (of the Fifth) is colossal,’ declares one interpreter. ‘Mahler finds a way of making a very basic idea appear in many new guises, so we get a constant spiral of uplifting energy until a glorious climax.’ So tell us something we didn’t already know.

The pull quotes are even worse. ‘Mahler said that when he composed a piece he always needed more and more time,’ reveals the BBC magazine. ‘His music takes us through aspects of the lifetime of a man, or mankind,’ blares Gramophone’s exclusive. And for this they get called Maestro? 

Conducting is not, on the whole, a verbal gift. The ones who talk most in rehearsal achieve least. Few conductors articulate with any intellectual clarity, and the few who do (like Boulez) exploit their articulacy to subject the music to an idiosyncratic ideology.

You have only to listen to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s archived radio attempts to explain Beethoven to realise that interpretation was something he performed without words. It may have been necessary for the music industry to invent the conductor as hero in order to satisfy public cravings for celebrity leaders. But when the publicity machine attempts to make an Aristotle out of an Achilles heel the results are about as edifying as asking Tiger Woods to explain the geometrics of his downswing.


  • BrianB says:

    I agree: there is this constant need to make them into music philosophers.
    I am an unabashed Gergiev fan- I think he is a slight exception to your rule.