When will we ever hear Mahler again?

When will we ever hear Mahler again?


norman lebrecht

February 12, 2021

The abrupt cancellation of two Mahler cycles in Amsterdam and Leipzig have implications that extend way beyond Covid-19.

The Mahler festivals were due to take place in May and June 2021, when restrictions are expected to have eased and performances will be possible. But the symphonies of Mahler are among the largest in the literature, requiring 100 musicians and more.

Covid will not go away this year and distancing will have to be maintained. That makes Mahler either untenable or an uninsurable risk.

And not just in 2021. All music organisations will need to economise far into the forseeable future. Mahler may sell lots of tickets but he plays at a loss. Admnistrators are planning smaller and cheaper programmes.

Mahler risks becoming a luxury, a rarity.

When will we hear him again?



  • Greg Bottini says:

    When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano….

  • IP says:

    No.8, live — probably not in a lifetime.

  • FrankUSA says:

    It may be time for a break from Mahler. Every major orchestra had one/two Mahler symphonies and the TORRENT of Mahler recordings continues unabated. Some years ago there was a comment that we need a break from Beethoven was seen as being overplayed. We need to hear some more Tchaikovsky who has all but disappeared from orchestral programming and he needs to be played as full throated Romantic symphonies instead of the underplayed cool accounts that one hears today. There are other composers who need to be heard from. Btw,a little less Bruckner might be nice to.

    • Roger Bruce says:

      And a lot less Wagner.

    • John Borstlap says:


    • MahlerFan says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Mahler has become every single conductor’s calling card, every touring orchestra’s calling card, every festival’s calling card. Such excessive repetition has led to a situation where the quality of interpretation has bottomed out. Who needs yet another Mahler recording ? And this from a huge Mahler fan.
      As for Bruckner… the less I hear the better. A composer who wrote one symphony and carved it up to create more.

    • Arnolphe says:

      ‘nice to…’ what?

    • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

      I’ll gladly export the annual performance of the Tchaikovsky 5 from Philadelphia. Way too much of that composer here. And Brahms, and Rachmaninoff. I wouldn’t mind a Mahler break.

  • sabrinensis says:

    I think we’ve heard enough. The repertoire is too rich to bear the ennui of such dedicated repetition. There are too many great composers and not enough slots to place them. Mahler needs a break.

  • Brian says:

    There are several chamber reductions out there (https://www.eamdc.com/news/time-for-mahler-versions-for-chamber-orchestra-and-ensembles/). I’d say that only the 4th Symphony lends itself reasonably well to one of these. And there are the songs. Bruckner, OTOH, may not come away so lucky from all of this.

  • sam says:

    Mahler is overrated. His contemporary critics were right. He was not heard for 50 years until he was revived by showboating conductors, from Stokowski to Bernstein, who saw in his scores perfect vehicles to emote on stage. Give him a well deserved rest for the next 50 years.

    • J Barcelo says:

      He was in fact heard quite often in the 50 years after his death. Just go to the archives of the New York Philharmonic – it’s amazing how many performances there were. Bernstein was the right man at the right time – the recording industry was going crazy, the improvement in reproduction quality was immense and Lenny held nothing back – a perfect combination. I do agree that we should give it a rest for a while – and Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and others too. Let’s try some Bax, Vaughan Williams, Holmboe, Rubbra for a change.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        J Barcelo, I am in agreement with you 1000% !!!!
        Why, do you think, J Barcelo (and this is a serious question), 20th c British composers, with the exceptions of Britten and Elgar, are so neglected? Their musics are marvelous.
        I’d like to read your views….
        – regards, Greg

      • Paul Carlile says:

        Certainly there were pockets of Mahler activity, notably, as you cite, New York (thanks to Bruno Walter and then Bernstein), and above all, Amsterdam, thanks to Mengelberg and later, Eduard van Beinum, continued by Haitink…. but it’s fair to say that there was resistance to Mahler in the first half of the 20th century; in Latin countries he didn’t exist at all, including France, and Nordic countries (usually big-symphony friendly), showed little interest.
        In my teens, i had to grub around to listen to Mahler on disc (LP), discovering 3rd & 6th Symphonies with Charles Adler (ghastly recorded sound and balance!) and the 8th with Eduard Flipse (Holland Festival -even worse sound!). Fortunately the 70s onwards brought a deluge from Haitink, Abbado, Solti…. and suddenly live performances everywhere. Hence the glut of which we now complain!

        But Bax, Warm-Villains and Rubbra…..? Please, no! Heard once, quickly forgotten…and in Rubbra’s case, woken up at the merciful end. No comparison. An admittedly over-exposed composer shouldn’t have to give way to those who have found a well-deserved oblivion!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Are you sure you’re on the right website? This site is a Mahler Plus site and rightly so.

      And that comment about M being ‘overrated’ is, with all due respect, a most ridiculous and [redacted] one. A composer who can – inspite of his wife – imagine music like the 1st mvt of the 1st symph, the entire 4th symph except the tutti at the end of the 3rd mvt, the Adagietto of the 5th symph, the 1st mvt of the 9th symph which is together with Das Lied von der Erde an achievement of genius, plus the 1st mvt of the posthumous 10th symph, + the many orchestral songs, belongs to the Very Great. People who carelessly ventilate their ignorance and total lack of any musical perception should go to a nearby park, dig a hole in the ground and keep their head in it for a couple of hours, trying to reconnect with reality.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        John Borstlap [redacted] on SlippeDisc????
        I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.
        Will wonders never cease?

      • George says:

        Great music is great for a reason! But we live in the era of the great “dummying-down” syndrome, and the classic arts are suffering. A very sad turn of events that has people seemingly unable to sit still, listen and appreciate great music for what it is rather than expecting to be “entertained.”

    • Jack says:

      YOU give him a well deserved rest for the next 50 years.

    • Max says:

      Povero Sam, dovresti impiegare il tuo tempo in modo diverso, evitando commenti idioti come questo. Risparmiaci la tua stupidità, evita qualsiasi altro commento per i prossimi 50 anni.

    • Nick says:

      Bach was not heard for about 100 years….does that mean he was overrated too? And, who are the critics to judge the “ratings” of geniuses like Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, etc.? Most are a bunch of jealous failed-in-life nobodies. We will most certainly miss Mahler and Bruckner, Strauss and Tchaikovsky if this CV-19 world-size madness continues for much longer!

    • John Porter says:

      Showboating conductors, like Bruno Walter, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Jascha Horenstein, Klaus Tennstedt, Rafael Kubelik…

  • Julien says:

    Don’t be silly. Once vaccination is widespread enough, probably around May or June, the current restrictions will be lifted and we’ll have Mahler again and everything else.
    And, by the way, the Salzburg festival will take place this year, just like it did last year, without a hitch. The VPO will play Mahler’s 3rd with Nelsons. Buy a ticket !

    • Genuinely confused says:


    • Christopher Culver says:

      Julien, scientific advisors to several European governments are on the record that even with successful mass vaccination, it is unlikely that we will have any events incompatible with strict social distancing until the autumn or even 2022. Don’t get your hopes up.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Scinetific evidence reveals that the main transmission route of the corona virus is airborne transmission, already understood in April last year but governments are slow or entirely evidence resisting to pick this up. With the right airco, vaccination, and as a bonus measure mouth masks for audiences, there should be no reason to have normal concerts again.

    • David Rowe says:

      I’m not sure about May/June, but agree 100% with the main point that when vaccinations are widely distributed and infection rates plummet (and remain low), medical leaders will declare it safe to resume all activities, and collective psychology surrounding gatherings – including large indoor ones – will quickly shift. When that happens, concert life will return to near normal….perhaps with masks for a while, but otherwise not much changed from 2019.

    • Frankster says:

      Buy a ticket… but only if you are sure the cancellation refund will be automatic and fast. The scientific community is not as confident as you.

    • Nick says:

      An optimistic view. I hope you are right!

  • JussiB says:

    So glad we took a break for ENDLESS Mahler like the endless shrimp and pasta at Red Lobster.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:


    That’s a bit dramatic, surely. Aren’t we just talking bout live performances being in doubt ? There are hundreds of recordings out there !

  • Michael Turner (conductor) says:

    Let me say up front that I love Mahler.

    However, for example, when I first came across the Symphony No.3 (I was about 12 – CBSO, Neeme Jarvi), I then noticed that it seemed to be ever-present, particularly in London.

    As the years have unfolded, so Mahler has really never been off my radar (lots of concerts and recordings) with each of the symphonies seeming to appear in pockets/flurries of activity, seemingly driven by range of undefined criteria.

    If a conductor wants to make his/her mark then, crudely, the Mahler symphonies offer the following fantastic opportunities. The first is done, due to it being Mahler’s ground-breaking, initial outing in this form and the second, due to its monumentality and choral ending. The third is next due to its immense scale, while the fourth has its place due to its unique finale and whether you are going to use a soprano with vibrato or not, or even a child or children. The fifth has “that” Adagio, before the sixth offers its canvas of utter tragedy. The seventh is seen to be a piece that needs conquering due to its enigmatic nature, while the eighth is just big. No.9 and/or No.10 (in various guises) is the apotheosis of the cycle and marks the composer’s death.

    What’s unfortunate is that there are so few conductors that really have something interesting to say about these works, without resorting to sensationalising certain aspects of them. One finds that, in order make their mark, conductor W feels the need to make the 3rd movement of No.1 vastly more barrel-organy/Kelzmery than conductor X, while conductor Y takes the longest to get to the 3rd bar of the 4th movement of No.5 but conductor Z has decided that it should be treated like Mozart and, just to add an extra noteworthy element, the harp should have more prominence than usual.

    Mahler needs to have his place on the concert programme and recording menu. However, when there are so many great works that could do with more exposure, or lesser-known works that might reveal their treasures, if they only got the opportunity to be heard, perhaps Mahler could take a step back and leave some room.

    I can already hear folk shouting, “but if the public doesn’t want to hear them, why would a promoter programme works by a little known composer, particularly for economic reasons”. Promoters, funders and sponsors need to balance the risks through clever use of artists and innovative programming.

    When I started my concert-going, there were very few recordings of Turangalila, the Glagolitic Mass, the Nielsen symphonies, minimalist music, Berwald, the Vaughan Williams and Walton symphonies. It doesn’t matter what your particular/apparent loves or hates are, we need to be opening up more opportunities for folk to broaden the scope of their experiences.

    Returning to the start of this tome, in the 1980s, Neeme Jarvi and the CBSO introduced me to Tchaikovsky Symph. No.2, Shostakovich Symph. No.4, the Britten Violin Concerto, Balakirev Symph. No.1 and a wealth of other pieces that were really very little played. His then Principal Conductor colleague, one Simon Rattle, took this idea even more seriously and the public largely loved him for it.

    Just saying…

  • Michael Hindus says:

    The Berlin Phil has programmed both the Bruckner Ninth and the Mahler Ninth (none of the choral symphonies) this spring, presumably without an audience. They did the chamber version of the Fourth last year and the chamber version of Das Lied is also worthwhile.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Even without the covid threat, Brucker and Mahler 9 offer some health issues for audiences if administered on one night. Saver is to stay away.

  • James says:

    Forgive me, but these comments suggesting to “give [Mahler] a well deserved rest” seem to reflect the views of an older generation.

    Do not forget that there are generations who have not yet managed or had opportunity to experience Mahler’s symphonies live in concert. I myself have only heard 1, 2 and 8 (the latter very badly) live in concert and was looking forward to hearing some of the other’s at the Leipzig festival.

    • John Borstlap says:

      When taking a taxi some time ago, in a hurry for an appointment, the driver refused to start the trip until the Mahler symphony he was listening to over the radio had finished. It was nr 7, not the best one but we both listened it out and I missed my appointment.

      • Paul Carlile says:

        Quite right too! Good sense of priorities, altho you were lucky he didn’t start the trip, then progressively slow down to a crawl to finish (in 7th heaven?), at the destination, taxiing your patience even more. A dis-appointment for you.
        I’m often late for the same reasons and now attempt to programme Hugo Wolf Lieder or various Bagatelles, Aphorisms, Visions Fugitives, etc, for a journey to my Very Important Appointments!

      • James says:

        Incidentally, the Seventh is one of my favourites and has some real earworms!

    • FrankUSA says:

      This is a perfect opportunity for you and younger generation to familiarize yourself with all of the great works of Gustav Mahler in the safety and convenience within your own home. There are reference recordings of every single Mahler work. You can begin the process of knowing Mahler through these treasured recordings and when normal concerts begin,and they will begin again,you will be able to attend these concerts as a more informed listener. Do not waste this present time.

      • Marfisa says:

        I sympathize with James. The impact of hearing a Mahler symphony live in a concert hall, especially if it is your first time, is much greater than listening to a recording of it. It is a bit like the difference between falling in love at first sight “in a crowded room”, and online dating (to acknowledge Valentine’s Day).

        But programming Mahler simply doesn’t leave much time for anything else, so I also sympathize with those who would like fewer performances of his symphonies, when large-scale concerts start again, so as to make room for other less well-trodden works.

  • Karl says:

    Covid is never going away. The flu mutates and comes back every year to kill people but we live with it. We’re going going to have to learn to live with covid too.

  • Don Ciccio says:

    Here’s the program conductors need to put together now: Haydn’s Mass in Time of War in the first part and Panufnik’s Sinfonia di Speranza in the second part.

  • JussiB says:

    I would like to hear more Bruckner and less Mahler in today’s concert halls. Bruckner’s music is more pure, not neurotic and exhausting like Mahler’s.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      I like Bruckner too, but I don’t agree with your assessment. Everything I’ve read on Bruckner and Mahler, indicates to me that Bruckner was every bit as ‘neurotic’ as Mahler. I think it shows up in his music just as much – sometimes even more.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Such negative perspective seems a bit premature. If there are enough vaccinated music lovers, and natural imunity of a majority of the population, and audiences and players refrain from unprotected coughing, sneezing and nose picking, Mahler should be possible in the course of this year. Maybe beginning with the smaller-size symphonies.

  • Anonymous Bosch says:

    I heard Mahler V. in late October at the Wiener Konzerthaus by the RSO Radio-Symphonieorchester. It was a very uneven performance (fault of conductor), but at least it was full-scale Mahler! In the coming months there are at least two orchestras playing Mahler I. (with and without “Blumine”) at Musikverein and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is scheduled for III. in May. Gatti and the Mahler Youth Orchestra will do Deryk Cooke’s version of X. As of today all of these performances are still on the schedule.

  • Hal Sacks says:

    The picture is from the American Premiere of Mahler 8 with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra on February 3, 1916 at the Academy of Music.

  • Marcelo Serrano says:

    The Barcelona Symphony Orchestra will be doing Das Knaben Wunderhorn in the spring with Röschmann and Bostridge in the spring, and several ensembles will be playing Reeinbert de Leeuw’s wonderful chamber version of Das Lied von der Erde, so I’d say Mahler will carry on

  • Mark says:

    If these restrictions go beyond this year the Orchestra world will basically be dead. The few places that are still playing are generally doing so under ridiculous circumstances, and it’s no longer a worthwhile experience worth paying what little money people have left. Why would any student go into music now? Most orchestras will close or make cuts, if your in conservatory now and you are not at the absolute top, quite now and try to save yourself if there is any other possible future for you. I hope we will all look back and think to ourselves that our reaction was totally worth it.

  • springbeg says:

    Mahler-Festival 3 aus 11, Thu 13.05.2021, 19:00 Gewandhaus zu Leipzig

    Seating Information
    Parkett rechts, Row: 7, Seat: 3 144.00 EUR ( Web Packages 3 aus 11 )

    Parkett rechts, Row: 7, Seat: 5 162.00 EUR ( Web Packages 3 aus 11 )

    Parkett rechts, Row: 7, Seat: 5 162.00 EUR ( Web Packages 3 aus 11 )

    Shipping option, Print@home (ohne ÖPNV) 0.00 EUR

    No. 4, Das Lied, Ruckert, No. 1 and finally No. 8…….As an over 60’s resident in the far flung Western Isles this festival was to fulfil a life’s ambition and my first visit to Germany. I returned my tickets with a heavy heart yesterday. God willing, two years is not too long to wait and we must never lose hope.

  • batonbaton says:

    Hopefully never. There are enough good, even great, recordings for those that must have GM in their lives to enjoy. There is more music out there deserving of an audience that it hardly ever gets.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Don’t forget that a majority of conductors and programmers look down on music, any music, as a mere vehicle for ego inflation and a budget factor. The performers abusing their own art form in that way would be, if they had lived at the time, the first to reject and condemn the very composers on whose work they now build their career.

  • Rich C. says:

    No Mahler? Just shoot me and get it over with.

  • Rob Keeley says:

    Maybe it’s time for chamber orchestras to do more – there’s plenty of great repertoire. More mixing of eras, so modern instruments can programme (say) Handel Concerti Grossi alongside Haydn, Mendelssohn and 20th century repertoire. And it’s time to start playing some of the great overtures out there that have been pushed aside for decades now. I love Mahler (and Bruckner) but come on, let’s look beyond…

  • from russia with love says:

    from russia with love

  • Ashu says:

    Well we wouldn’t want to be selfish, would we.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    It takes a singer and a pianist to perform Mahler Lieder.

    Actually it takes a great singer and a great pianist.

  • Barbara Barry says:

    As much as many people want to hear Mahler live, there are many excellent performances online, quite a lot free.

  • AllesMahler says:

    I have lived on a diet of recorded Mahler symphonies and songs for 12 months. This has improved my score reading and attention to details in recordings, but I can’t wait to hear Mahler live in concert again … “Ich sehne mich, o Freund, an deiner Seite die Schönheit dieses Abends zu genießen. Wo bleibst du? Du lässt mich lang allein!”