Valery Gergiev’s idea of playing two Mahler symphonies in the same BBC Prom concert – the fourth before the interval and the fifth after – is a product of our special-offer times. If neon-strip retailers can accustom us to buying more than we want by pretending to give it away free, what’s to stop conductors cramming our heads with musical excess?
I can think of no obvious precedent or justification for doing two Mahler symphonies in the same concert. Mahler once performed the fourth symphony twice in the same Amsterdam concert after Willem Mengelberg advised him that the Dutch audience was reflective by nature and would appreciate the opportunity to review the work again, after an intermission drink.
On other occasions, he performed sections of two or three different works, usually some songs and a symphonic movement, but he did not (so far as I recall) ever conduct two symphonies in the same night. So what’s the point?
Well, Gergiev is a high-energy conductor who likes to perform Soviet-style Stakhanovite feats, beating all Kremlin targets and collecting his medal on the first of May. There is also an iconoclastic streak to the man, a desire to shatter western moulds and do things in his own inimitable way. He has a genuine fascination with Mahler’s personality and he is perfectly entitled to try something that never crossed the composer’s mind.
It is not, by any measure, a crass idea. There is much that appeals to me about pairing two symphonies that musicologists split into different periods of Mahler’s life – the fourth in his so-called Wunderhorn period, and the fifth in the middle span of non-vocal symphonies. Putting them together makes a nonsense of these academic categories, and I’m all in favour of that.
There is also great merit in hearing Mahler’s music sequentially. I once staged a performance in Stockholm of all ten symphonies in a day – played in the four-hand piano versions, and immensely revealing of the connective tissue in Mahler’s creative constitution. None of us who heard the set, start to finish, would ever hear Mahler again in the same way.
So, though I’m suspicious of the supermarket ethics and unconvinced by Gergiev’s hit-and-run tactics, I am really keen to hear two Mahler symphonies back to back on August 5th. Camilla Tilling is the soloist in Mahler 4 – I like that, too. See you there.