Monday, September 3, 2007

The Coming Mahler Wars?

Having written about the performances that the San Francisco Symphony would be giving with Michael Tilson Thomas as part of the Proms series in London, I feel it is only fair to report that Matthew Rye of the Telegraph has now reviewed these two concerts. The review was highly positive, declaring that both concerts "demonstrated a musical partnership at the height of its powers." The highest praise went to the second concert, at which MTT conducted the Mahler seventh. This was not included in the "Bon Voyage" concert (since that would have left little, if any, room for anything else); but its performance last June was definitely one of the high points of this past season.

Without being smug, however, I cannot say I was surprised by this critical reception. MTT is still "Permanent Guest Conductor" of the London Symphony Orchestra. I do not know how the rest of the critics feel about him, but his LSO reviews in the Telegraph seem to have run the gamut consistently from sympathetic to enthusiastic! So I suspect that his fan base is as strong in London as it is here, particularly where Mahler is concerned.

Nevertheless, we may be entering a period of "Mahler turf wars;" and London could well be a principal battlefield. This would certainly be a logical location for such a confrontation, due, at the very least, to Georg Solti's efforts with the LSO prior to his Chicago appointment and Giuseppe Sinopoli's recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Valery Gergiev is now principal conductor of the LSO, and he will be leading them into Mahler territory in the coming season. Furthermore, he will be doing it with a vengeance, since he will be conducting the complete cycle of symphonies (representing the tenth only by the adagio movement, however, which is all that MTT, not to mention Solti and Sinopoli, has ever performed). Furthermore, according to the LSO press release, he will be "pairing the symphonies with music by Schoenberg, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, and Nikolay Karetnikov and Boris Tischchenko, two Russians with roots going back to Mahler." (The Schoenberg is his first chamber symphony, coupled with the Mahler seventh. This draws an interesting line in the sand, since MTT has always conducted this as the only piece on the program; and I do not know if he has ever conducted the Schoenberg. On the other hand there is an interesting historical connection, since the series of concerts given by Schoenberg's "society for private performances" included a four-hand piano transcription of this particular Mahler symphony.) All this, of course, is taking place in the context of Simon Rattle's "claim" on Mahler (which he has now transported from Birmingham to Berlin). Meanwhile, to throw another log on this fire, Mariss Jansons will be conducting the Concertgebouw in the Mahler fifth when they come to Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco this January (and, of course, the Concertgebouw claim on Mahler goes back at least as far as Mengelberg). (In the spirit of that LSO press release, he will be pairing the symphony with Strauss' "Don Juan.") I have already purchased my Concertgebouw tickets, since I have no intention of missing this performance! Personally, I am hoping that all of this competition will raise the bar on the quality of Mahler performances (not that I have anything against the level of the bar that MTT has set)!

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