Google that word and you’ll find it, referring to either the fanatical devotion that afflicts many of Mahler’s admirers (this blogger included), or the glut of Mahler performances filling orchestra schedules this anniversary season–or any other recent season. Back in the old days, conductors wanting to strut their stuff (whether it was any good or not) had to record a Beethoven cycle. Now they perform Mahler cycles.
What’s interesting about the recent Mahler fad is that new generations of conductors from outside the Central European or American traditions feel obligated to conduct all his music as if they were specialists, with very different results from what we’ve heard before. Most prominently, Valery Gergiev has been flogging his Mahler in music capitals across Europe and America, and Gustavo Dudamel has just announced a cycle in LA next season. Audiences tend to eat this up–few can resist the rush of live Mahler–but some critics have been sniffy.
Lewis Smoley, who literally wrote the book on Mahler recordings, has a harsh but perceptive review of Gergiev’s recent New York concerts here (we attended the First and Fourth and agree with this assessment). Negative reviews of Dudamel’s Mahler 5 on DG are here, here, and here (Richard Osborne in Gramophone); a thorough positive one from Christopher Abbot in Fanfare is reprinted here. Dudamel’s performance of the First has also raised hackles. See the negative review here; for balance, a positive review of the New York concert is here.
I find that Gergiev’s and Dudamel’s Mahler performances have some traits in common: highly energetic, brash sonorities and generally unyielding tempos, occasionally interrupted by sudden, unexpected shifts. Whether this represents a valid alternative approach to Mahler, or a wrongheaded caricature of it spawned by ignorance, depends on our understanding of “what conditions are indispensable for any performance that hopes to capture the true essence”* of Mahler’s music. I’ll reflect on that question in an upcoming post. For now, I’ll observe that there comes a time when links to performance traditions rooted in the composer’s musical world are severed, and performers have begun to shape their own understanding of the style. For Mahler, that time has come.
* Malcolm Boyd, Bach (London: J.M. Dent, 1983), p. 220.