Less Mahler is better Mahler

In 1980 I was fortunate to be peripherally involved in Simon Rattle's 1980 recording of Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler's uncompleted Tenth Symphony. There was much to admire both in Deryck Cooke's scholarship and Simon Rattle's performance. But, for me, the various interpretations of  that particular reconstruction never reached the emotional depths of the transcendental Ninth Symphony. So it came as something of a shock when I was bowled over by another completion of the Tenth, bowled over to the extent that I found myself comparing the performance to Bruno Maderna and John Barbirolli's sublime accounts of the Ninth.

BIS' recording of John Storgårds conducting the Lapland Chamber Orchestra in the completion and arrangement of Mahler's sketches for his Tenth Symphony by the Maltese musicologist, conductor and singer Dr. Michelle Castelletti was responsible for my epiphany. This completion is scored for single woodwind (flute doubling piccolo), horn, trumpet, percussion, harp, piano/harmonium and single (or chamber) strings in the style of of the arrangement for small ensemble of Mahler's Fourth Symphony by Erwin Stein commisioned for Schoenberg's Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen ( Society for Private Musical Performances).

It is not just the genius of Michelle Castelletti's realisation and the intensity of music making of John Storgårds and his Laplanders that makes this performance so memorable. In a post earlier this year I wrote about how engaging the socially distanced sound of Simon Rattle and the LSO's Schubert was. I suggested that this different and more engaging sound was likely to appeal to classical's coveted new young audience. In another recent post titled 'How to reach a big new post-COVID classical audience', a post incidentally which generated one of the largest readerships in the blogs seventeen year history, I suggested that the 'observer effect', which creates a unique sound in the mind of the listener, makes the concept of definitive interpretations redundant.

Michelle Castelletti challenges the dogma of definitive interpretations; but her challenge reaches far beyond how Mahler is performed to confront the problem of definitive classical music. Music is sound, and sound, like all energy, is nothing more than vibrations governed by the laws of physics. In Cartesian-Newtonian physics matter was viewed as comprised of solid unchanging atoms. But this view was superceded by quantum physics which revealed vibrating subatomic particles that only exist as a wave of probabilities on a map of possible locations until the observer defines their nature and position . 

Despite paying lips service to change, classical music is stuck in the paradigm of Cartesian-Newtonian physics. This means the music is viewed as a solid unchangeable art form fixed in space and time by conventions dating back two centuries. Whereas, in fact, music is no more than a fluid wave of probabilities on a map of possible locations. Those probabilities are only resolved by each listener, and, moreover, they are resolved differently by each listener. 

Classical music continues to conform to the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm, while everything it needs to leverage to thrive and expand - notably the rewired audience and enabling technologies - respond to quantum plasticity. That wonderful BIS CD of Michelle Castelletti's take on Mahler's Tenth Symphony provides just one example. It is captured on the disc in stunning SACD sound. Super Audio Compact Disc is a format that offers better sound than standard Red Book CD. Which should delight the music critics who constantly bang on about the need to build acoustically-perfect concert halls. Yet SACD received minimal support from the classical industry, is never mentioned by the acoustic-perfectionist critics, and is now effectively moribund. Instead classical music threw its weight behind lo-res streaming. Acoustic perfection anyone?

That Mahler disc provides another lesson. SACD offers multi-channel replay up to 5.1 channels. Again this should have been a no-brainer for the classical industry: because its coveted rewired audience only listens on multi-channel home cinema systems, or on headphones/ear-buds which cannot reproduce a stereo image. Our Cartesian-Newtonian audience is embracing multi-dimensional Dolby Atmos and Apple Spatial Audio, and the market for conventional stereo equipment is now tiny. So what does the classical industry do, with a very few notable exceptions?  It tells its new rewired audience that the only way to appreciate classical music is in proscenium arch stereo, just like their grandparents did. 

Covid is a global tragedy. But it is also a disruptive vicissitude, and what we have learnt from more benign disrupters such as Uber and Airbnb is that the old and new normals are very different. The classical industry must stop trying to turn the clock back to the old normal, and instead start to understand and exploit the new. Mahler's greatness will not be diminished; but audiences now want to listen to his music in different ways and dogma should not deny them that.

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