If you look for Mahler’s First Symphony on YouTube, the top hit is a performance by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra from 2009 conducted by Claudio Abbado. Deservedly so.
Abbado was in his mid seventies at the time, but looking much older, dying of cancer – the poor man looked like Ramses the second after he’d been mummified – but with an economy of gesture and a face expressing the intense excitement of a man living in and directing a transcendent moment – and knowing it was one of the last times he could – he drew out a depth of performance from himself and the orchestra that was as tender, exuberant, grandiose, satirical and magnificent as Mahler has to be.
Mahler said, “My symphonies represent the contents of my entire life.” Abbado was conducting his life through the music. The opening shot shows Simon Rattle in the audience, making mental notes.
Taking the time to listen and watch – not just having it as background doing the washing up – means that you can see how much work the orchestra is doing. The Double bass players leaning hard across their instruments, bowing the thick strings like they were sawing logs. The violin and viola sections swooping and soaring like cornfields in a storm. Abbado often holding them back with a look and a tight but gentle hand gesture- a little quieter, a little slower – now everything you’ve got – so contrasts in tone and colour could be heard and felt more clearly. Unexpected instruments too. I hadn’t realised there was a harp in there, nor how menacing a harp could sound.
Visual comedy too. Some terrible noughties European haircuts. Some looking like hats. The blissful expression on the face of the lead trumpet, oblivious to the murderous look on the face of the second trumpet sitting through his solo; biding his time for when his day might dawn. Very definite and distinct faces montaged onto the uniform black suits. Cartoonable dramas and instruments which no one since Gerard Hoffnung has made much of.
All the players playing like they were making love with their instruments. All looking for the fullest expression they could. Essential, intelligent and deeply felt individual contributions to a collective whole. A wonderful piece of exemplary human co-operation. The best of us, what we can do when we put our hearts, minds and souls into it. And gloriously analogue. A skilled human being and an instrument working with others, live and alive.
What we are missing.
The whole thing is so exuberant that it is impossible not to sob. At the end, as the crowd stand and cheer two women throw handfuls of rose petals down on the orchestra. As well they might.
Take an hour to listen and watch. And give it your full attention. Its here.