Gustav Mahler was born in 1860, which means that this year we will see an almost infinite number of Mahler symphony cycles put on by the great orchestras of the world, and probably all of his major works performed at the Proms in the summer. In fact, this will go on for two years, because 2011 is the 100th anniversary of his death. If you’re an artist who desires prolonged posthumous commemoration, 49 and 51 are good ages to die. Though in fact Mahler didn’t quite make it to 51.
Mahler was a passion of my teenage years. My eyes and ears were opened by the fifth symphony, which I listened to over and over again in my room. I might not have come to Mahler until later if not for the untimely death of my uncle, after which I was privileged to be able to choose several of his CDs for myself. Among them were Bernstein’s thrilling account of Mahler 5 with the Vienna Philharmonic, which remains my recording of choice, and also things like Anne Sofie von Otter’s ravishing Weill disc and the Emerson Quartet’s Bartók.
Where Death in Venice comes in, I’m not sure. I read Thomas Mann’s novella when I was 14, but can’t now remember whether I had seen Visconti’s film before I got to know the symphony that is used so heavily and to such great effect throughout. The film is an easy target for criticism. It lacks pace and muddles Mann’s story, though the transformation of Aschenbach from a writer to a composer clearly based on Mahler is at least understandable, if miscalculated – Mann became aware of Mahler’s death while he was writing the book, and consciously based Aschenbach’s appearance on Mahler’s. Still, for its flaws, it’s somehow mesmerising, the performance of Dirk Bogarde, the cinematography of Pasqualino (Pasquale) De Santis and the use of Mahler’s music – not just the fifth but also the third symphony – seem to me beyond reproach. Somehow, anyway, the book, the film and the music are all bound up together for me. When I reread Death in Venice last year in Venice, I had the Bernstein on in the background.
Growing up in Somerset, symphony concerts were not easy to come by, especially if you didn’t look for them. I finally saw Mahler 5 in concert at the Proms performed by the BBCSO and Leonard Slatkin, shortly after my 18th birthday. Also on the programme was a rather sweet arrangement by Britten of a movement from Mahler 3. While not the most groundbreaking performance, I found it thrilling. I don’t know whether there was a problem with the Albert Hall’s air conditioning, but I remember having to unbutton my shirt because of the heat, if not entirely then at least partially. I think I was probably wearing a T-shirt underneath, so the unspoken dress protocol was not breached.
My teenage passion for Mahler, as for Shostakovich, has lapsed in recent years. Ten years ago, the prospect of getting to know an enormous orchestral work was a source of excitement, but now it seems a chore. Not just with these composers but in general, I am coming to realise that I prefer shorter forms. Mahler’s orchestral songs continue to move me. Kindertotenlieder above all, I think, but here’s a ludicrously young-looking Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (now 85, then 35) singing “Ging heut Morgen übers Feld” from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Mahler’s setting of the final words, “Nein! Nein! Das ich mein, mir nimmer, nimmer blühen kann!”, is almost impossibly bittersweet. And what a fine actor Fischer-Dieskau is.
Perhaps, then, this is a good time to start listening to Mahler regularly once more. There is still much to be discovered, many byways unexplored. His music appears to lend itself to reinterpretation. I’ve often meant to try Canadian jazz pianist Uri Caine’s take on Mahler. And though I love Bernstein’s interpretation of the fifth symphony (and Barbirolli’s), I confess the one I listen to most often now is David Briggs’ majestic transcription for organ, which has all of the power and subtlety of the orchestral version.