We were unsighted for the hammer blows. The only tickets that I could get for Mahler’s 6th Symphony at the Proms were high on one side, and we could only see half the stage. For other works, this might not have mattered, but the last movement of the 6th contains two massive thuds from the percussion.
Like the broken string in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the method of generating them causes debate. Two hammers had been tried and rejected before conductor Riccardo Chailly approved the production model: a mallet of Bugs Bunny proportions, brought down on a huge butcher’s block. If only we’d seen it in action.
We heard it, however. What a performance! Electrifying hardly does credit to it. Mr Chailly set the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra some blistering tempi. Motifs flashed past like the view from a high-speed train. A tour de force, but searingly true to this product of pre-First World War Vienna by turns, driven, lush, tormented, dreamy, neurotic and nihilistic. I used to feel almost a voyeur of Mahler’s inner turmoil. I now find that, just as his Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) were composed before his little daughter actually did die, so the despairing 6th Symphony was written when he was unusually happy. Aren’t the Proms wonderful?
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