Six thousand-odd people in the Royal Albert Hall certainly seemed to think so on Friday night. The roar of joy that greeted the Great Gustav’s Symphony No.1 as delivered by the Berlin Philharmonic and Starry Sir Simon was an experience in itself. Anyone who has never attended a Prom needs to imagine the scene: this vast round hall packed out, the arena crammed with promenaders yelling for music and the musicians who play it. Anyone who doubts the value of the BBC and publicly funded arts needs to imagine it too, by the way, because this just wouldn’t be possible without them.
And did the Berlin Phil deserve that response? You bet your bottom pound they did. Like Pooh Bear’s honey pot, the Berlin Phil is honey all the way through. It’s a rarer phenomenon amongst orchestras than you might think. Besides, imagine having Emmanuel Pahud as your principal flautist. This amazing man with his golden flute and a strong following of his own doesn’t stand out unduly from his colleagues; this is the musical quality you may expect from each individual. Their unity of ensemble is probably the finest I’ve heard in any orchestra, anywhere in the world.
Sir Simon Rattle, a returning hero who conquered Berlin after being given a rather silly-ly rough ride on home shores, not least by our press (could that possibly be because allegedly he prefers not to talk to us? chicken/egg?), is not Herbert von Karajan (and hopefully won’t be), but his interpretations of Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 and the Mahler were like a fine wine with a long, strong aftertaste, the perfectly-calibrated crescendi of the Beethoven and the orchestra-circling, deeply hushed sighing figure of Mahler’s spoof-‘Frere Jacques’ funeral march rumbling in the mind long after the music was over.
I don’t want to grumble, because this was a seriously memorable night, but if I have anything to ask for, it would be a stronger Klezmery twist in that slow movement’s first contrasting section, an even more sardonic characterisation, and – yes, less outright beauty at that point.
My colleagues are clocking in with a range of responses – here’s David Nice at The Arts Desk for starters, suggesting big screens as the next way forward for the Proms, since so many people couldn’t get in. (And unfortunately it wasn’t televised – most other Friday-nighters have been). Rumour had it that the promming queue was closed to new arrivals at 11.30am; a Twitter contact says he was the last to get in, at 3.20pm; but when I turned up, around 7pm, people were still lining up way down Prince Consort Road and out to Queen’s Gate.
And so to digesting Mahler’s Symphony No.1… Some people are turning noses up at various anniversary interviews and broadcasts in which a few rather fine musicians have been opining that Mahler in some way had the vision to foretell the 20th century, especially the Holocaust. Fair enough; we respond with hindsight, and that’s inevitable. But if the chilling march into oblivion of the Klezmer band and the forest animals and the shattering of their silence by the devastating onset of that outsize finale doesn’t spark thoughts of this in at least half the hall, I would be reasonably surprised. Two of my three conductor interviewees the other week said something like this and, given the quality of their musicianship, I wouldn’t discount its value quite so swiftly. If such associations inspire conductors to bring out the side of Mahler that is truly terrifying, I for one have no problem with it.
Of course the music speaks for itself. We may wonder what Mahler is trying to say, but we sense the answers by intuition and listening, without the reasoning of language or specific argument; we absorb these processes directly into the bloodstream via the soundwaves. There doesn’t have to be a message; yet we learn it anyway. And each of us takes away with us something of our own that leaves our inner landscape subtly but irrevocably altered. That’s why we go. That’s why, like Educating Rita‘s flatmate, we sometimes ask each other “Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?”