Mahler’s masterpiece finally gets the reception it deserves
His First Symphony felt alien to 19th-century listeners, but Saturday’s audience lapped it up
Gustav Mahler recalled that ‘my friends avoided me in terror. Not a single one of them dared to speak to me about the work’. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images
Mahler wrote his First Symphony in 1888. The year before, Stanford had produced his Irish symphony, and a year later, the year in which Mahler’s symphony received its first performance in Budapest, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers began its hugely successful first run in London.
There is a wonderfully romantic contemporary description of Mahler being “drunk with the beauty of the world and with that of the sounds within him”, and also being so distracted when walking on the street with friends that he had to be protected from walking into other people.
The majority verdict on the new symphony in Budapest was negative to hostile, the public’s applause lukewarm and smattered with booing, the critics mostly dismissive. Mahler himself recalled that “my friends avoided me in terror. Not a single one of them dared to speak to me about the work or its performance, and I wandered about like someone sick or outlawed.”
What can it have been like for the listeners of that first audience, using the familiar classics to try to make sense of a symphony that kept its opening sonority – a wispy-toned, held A – for a long time as a static background, presented passages in a style of artless folksiness that most composers would have striven hard to avoid, and had a startling, violent start to its finale that must have raised the heart rates of everyone in the hall?
I can only imagine that it must have seemed like some kind of alien dish, so full of unrecognisable and exotic flavours that it remained repellent as a whole in spite of the fact that some parts of it did actually delight the palate.
Saturday’s NCH performance by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop was as lucid as you could wish for, impeccably clear without being clinical, understated rather than indulgent, but in a way that made the music sound more rather than less original, and at the same time paced with a cunning that maximised the sense of logical continuity.
To 21st-century ears, it was a pleasure from start to finish. From the perspective of 1889, I suspect, you would regard the man who wrote it as a head case.
The first half of the concert, Brazilian composer Clarice Assad’s Terra Brasilis, a kind of historical travelogue woven together with the Brazilian national anthem, and the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story, sounded almost tame by comparison, in spite of both works’ vivid orchestral colouring and rhythmic bite.
On Sunday afternoon the NCH presented a programme of Villa-Lobos, Falla, Albéniz and Granados by the Brazilian Guitar Quartet. If your image of guitar quartets is the work of the Dublin Guitar Quartet, amplified, in-your-face, and favouring musical minimalism, the Brazilian players are at the opposite end of the spectrum: soft-spoken, impeccably finely textured, and, in spite of that, often sounding like a miniature guitar orchestra rather than a four-man group. It is that evocation of orchestral sonority that remains in the memory more than any of the individual pieces.
Incidentally, Mahler was able to know how his symphony was being received based on the applause that each movement received. Budapest heard the work in its original five-movement version, and liked the first three movements rather more than the final two.