The one that Mahler dropped
I heard Mahler’s first symphony last night with the discarded Blumine movement re-inserted as the original second movement. It is not attempted often, and with good reason. Mahler dropped it after three unhappy performances, it was never published with the symphony and was not heard of again until it turned up in an auction room in 1959.
Benjamin Britten performed it as an Aldeburgh curiosity and it has since turned up from time to time in concert, seldom within its original context. I have never heard Blumine before as Mahler first performed it in Budapest, in 1889.
So it there a case for reinserting Blumine? Not from what I heard at the Royal Festival Hall. Vladimir Jurowski, ever experimenting, set off the symphony with a dexterously balanced kaleidoscope of ambient sounds, the trumpets distantly placed offstage, and built up a complex set of tensions for the movement to end on a whip-crack.
That’s when Blumine almost ruined the show. The movement belongs, in a literal sense, to incidental music that Mahler wrote in 1884 for Die Trompeter von Sakkingen and, in a textural sense, to the plangent atmospherics of the third and fifth symphonies. Mahler is, in other words, reaching both back and forwards. He is both behind and ahead of himself. Nothing in the passage relates to the autobiographical narrative of the first symphony. It is both distracting and disruptive. When the orchestra returns after the Blumine episode to the familiar scherzo, it feels as if an intruder has been removed from the premises.
Jurowski took care to observe Mahler’s original break between the scherzo and the funeral-march movement, its macabre ironies dangerously under-characterised, before redeeming the performance with a dazzling finale that had the London Philharmonic players at the edge of their wits and the audience at the edge of its seats. It was one of those hair-raising concerts where too many risks were taken without coherent necessity. Blumine unbalanced the show. It needs to be put back in its drawer. To Blu, or not to Blu? It’s not much of a question.
And here’s a caricature of Mahler conducting it.