Thoroughly Modern Mahler

29 Jul

Sir Roger Norrington does nothing by halves; his performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony given on 25th July at the BBC Proms with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra has generated wildly divergent opinions. I am ashamed to say that I resisted the temptation to attend the concert in person, as I feared his well-publicised views on performance style would most likely result in disappointment at best, disgust at worst. However, given that the off switch was but a finger’s length away, I decided to risk the broadcast on BBC4 on the following Thursday. I wouldn’t say the performance was revelatory, but it was thought-provoking… almost as thought-provoking as some of the reactions in the press and social media.

I don’t feel sufficiently knowledgeable about early-20th-century performance practice to either support or attack Sir Roger’s attitude to vibrato: I expect it will be easy enough to find others prepared to do that. What I am prompted to write about is the reaction of the listening public, and in particular those who found the concert unacceptable.

In many cases, people were comparing what they heard with famous performances of the past: Haitink, Bernstein and so on. Our generation is of course incredibly lucky to be able to draw on such a rich legacy of recorded music – something those in Mahler’s own time could not have conceived – but it is very important for us to use that legacy wisely. Each recording is but a snapshot in time, and none should ever be taken as the ideal which all subsequent performances should try to emulate. They may give us an example of performance practice at a particular moment (and that may be historically valuable), but they do not lay down rules for the style of any subsequent performance.

We have a century of interpretations of Mahler’s music to draw on, and until recently the style of those interpretations has been broadly similar. If we look at earlier musical periods, we see that performance methods do change, sometimes hugely, over time. The ‘historically-informed’ school, for example, has virtually eliminated, over the past 40 years or so, the 19th/early 20th century style of performing baroque music: that style, in turn, derived from moves back in the late 18th century towards larger-scale renditions – the famous 1784 Messiah at Westminster Abbey involved over 500 performers.

Thus the style pendulum swings to and fro, and who is to say that it won’t do the same for Mahler over the coming century? The difference for us is that we can actually hear the performances of yesteryear: those of the pre-recording era could not. Hence their preferred performance style was entirely based on their own contemporary taste, and could only evolve linearly from the immediate past. We, however, are at risk of allowing the evolution of our contemporary taste to be stifled by historical influences.

Music is not unique amongst creative arts in suffering thus, but it is the most profoundly affected by the fact that its traditional method of transmission – the notation used to pass the composition down to subsequent generations of performers – cannot precisely describe the way a piece will sound. And since it is the audible experience, not the way it looks on the page, that is its living essence, that means there is no definitive way to prescribe the exact nature of its existence. In one respect, a composer does have a way of controlling interpretation: the use of a metronome mark to determine tempo. However, many composers (including Mahler in the Ninth Symphony) choose not to specify a metronome speed, which leaves matters in the hands of the performers. There were those who felt that Norrington’s tempi were too fast in this performance: I would just say that in the absence of direction to the contrary, the choice is up to him.

I am not in any way denigrating the work of the great Mahlerian conductors and orchestras of recent times – after all, my love of Mahler stems from listening to them – but I just want to ask some of Norrington’s critics to consider this: however moving, profound or magnificent your favourite performances are, you cannot with any honesty say that those interpretations must be the model on which those of the future should be based. By all means express your opinion that Bernstein or Haitink’s version is superior, but please don’t criticise Norrington just because he’s different. Every generation of music lovers has the right to determine its own style of performance.


Posted by on 29 July 2011 in Music


2 responses to “Thoroughly Modern Mahler

  1. patrickhadfield

    29 July 2011 at 08:48

    A good post – it sums up what I was thinking! Norrington’s was one interpretation, and I have no idea how close it was to Mahler’s intention. Indeed, I think conductors and musicians have a responsibility to add something to the score: otherwise every performance would be the same.

    I was at the Prom on Monday, selected because I enjoy Mahler. I enjoyed Norrington’s Mahler, too, though found it not as powerful or engaging as others I have heard. I have no idea if that was down to the lack of vibrato – our the heart in the hall, our the person coughing next to me, or…

  2. Zena

    1 August 2011 at 14:22

    Norrington is perfectly entitled to his interpretation of any music. His interpretation of Mahler’s 9th (I was there) didn’t attract me: I ‘listened again’, and watched the TV recording, & still his interpretation did not speak to me, nor engage me.

    I have found previously Norrington has no difficulty in interposing himself between the audience & the music. An encore? After Mahler 9?


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