Mahler Revisited

Slogged away at the latest tome all day Saturday, trawling through it to cut out the outworn clichés, the dead wood, and all the passages that make me cringe.  You say to yourself, “That works… that doesn’t work…” but after a while you lose perspective and you can no longer tell.  So you have to put it down.  Besides, I was getting cabin fever.  So I put my pen down and went off to the Shenaz in Glasgow (“One visit means many” – indeed, though my last was about 45 years ago) for a delicious lamb bhuna.  They used to serve a starter called “indescribables” so I asked for them and received a look of incomprehension.  I’m turning into my father, who used to order a “Macallam” for dessert.  The Shenaz is on Granville Street opposite the magnificent west-facing frontage of St Andrews Hall – the only part of the hall to survive the devastating fire of 1962.  What a pity I couldn’t just cross the road to hear the RSNO’s season opener.  Instead, I walked the length of Sauchiehall Street to the north end of Buchanan Street and entered the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

I nearly didn’t go.  Mahler 1.  I’ve played it, probably around the last time I had a curry in the Shenaz, and didn’t much like it.  One is so dogmatic as a youth.  I thought the opening was a steal from Beethoven 4, that Mahler having run out of themes also stole Frère Jacques, cast in a minor key for the third movement’s bass solo, and that the last movement was pure bombast.  So I was minded on Saturday to cut and run at the interval.

But the RSNO are on top form.  There was a virtuoso rendition of Strauss’ Don Juan, and then the magnificent Karen Cargill sang Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs which gave me a chance to practise my German.


Der liebe Abend blickt so still herein.

Sometimes I think German is just an English dialect – or maybe vice versa.  Anyway it put me in the mood, so I stayed.

It soon became evident that we were hearing something very special indeed.  As I said, the RSNO are on top form, but I also think this remarkable performance had much to do with Maestro Thomas Sondergard who seemed to know how to get rid of all the accrued barnacles of conventional performance interpretation and get to the core of the music.  I particularly recall the magical introduction and then, following the first movement’s principal theme taken from the second of Mahler’s four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the return to the opening material, with all these sounds of nature, when the whole world seems to hold its breath.

The orchestra evidently also thought Sondergard was key to a wonderful performance, because they applauded him consistently throughout the various curtain calls.  They remained seated to allow him to take a bow – which is something of a convention, but then when he gestured to bring them to their feet, they remained seated and had him take another bow.  Seasoned orchestral musicians can be pretty hard bitten.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the RSNO do this before.

The communal act of music making, and music listening, in concert, can often be disappointing.  The performance can be routine, a run-through; the audience can be restless and inattentive, distracting neighbours with luridly bright mobile phone screens, polluting the soundscape with coughs, ringtones, hearing aid whistles, and even conversation.  Even when everyone, orchestra and audience alike, are giving their all, even then, some magical ingredient, inexplicably, is missing.

For all that, sometimes it just all comes together.  And that may happen, as it did for me on Saturday evening, when you least expect it.  You might record the concert and indeed, the resulting CD would be remarkable, but you can never really bottle the experience of a wonderful live concert.  The music existed for as long as the players played and the audience listened, and now, that unique experience only exists in the archive of memory.

We should not regret that.  Let it go.  Move on.  Next week the RSNO play Arnold Bax, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Sergei Rachmaninov.  Eight of us are going.  We are meeting first for a preconcert dinner.  We have being playing music together for a long time, since, come to think of it, before the last time I dined in the Shenaz.

And Bax – my hero – in concert.  How unusual is that?

Can’t wait.

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