It's an odd thing. Gustav Mahler could work only in complete silence. Sounds from across a lake, a local bandstand, a bird dancing on the eaves would drive him into a rage. He complained endlessly about it as he tried to complete his fourth symphony in 1900: the noise of nature and reality, the "barbarity of the outside world", as he called it.
He fled each summer to the tiny village of Maiemigg, on the Worthersee in southern Austria, to compose in total seclusion and total peace. in a wooden hut that he had built in the middle of a forest — his Komponierhauschen.
Even here, in a sealed nowhere, things would get to him.
But it's odd. Mahler's music seems infused with every smudge and crease and stain of sonic reality, particularly the sonic reality of country living. How could someone who appeared to filch reality's sounds so object to reality's generous hubbub?
But then maybe he didn't filch from the world. Maybe the idea that his music is a mere soundtrack or tracing of reality is wrong.
Mahler, after all, was not an impressionist but a romantic. He was not charting reality through aural metaphors but conjuring up a unique world all of his own. He was creating his own space, using his own musical language, as variegated and diffuse and fractured and lyrical as our own, but crucially not our own.
Mahler was not trying to imitate our world at all. His sonic landscapes live parallel to the real one, in competition with it, not nestled in it. Maybe this is why those birds him so angry. Or perhaps they really were barbarous.
What would he have made of the lesser-spotted Valery Gergiev landing on his score? The Russian was conducting Mahler's first and fourth symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall last weekend.
And Gergiev, as usual, was adding his own acoustic effects. Competitive sucks, tensed grunts and humming. All very loud, and a match for the orchestra at times.
Admittedly these vocal excretions do seem to have a point — most of the time. Like a tennis player's grunts and squeaks and inhalations they are there to facilitate the shot or, in the case of Gergiev, convey the manner in which the orchestra should hit the next note. When it works — when the suck does elicit a softer landing or an attenuated end — then the act is breathtaking, a sort of magic. When it misses the mark, it's embarrassing.
In Mahler's first, the orchestra really played for him. The violins let rip, following Gergiev's bracing tempi all the way. The cello smothered each phrase lovingly. The flute trips and clarinet hooks that flitter in and out of the piece as if it's the Sorcerer :s Apprentice were a joy, beautifully phrased. The still heart of the whole symphony, however, was the whispered trio: a flighty, lustrous, quietly ecstatic wisp of a love-song that, for me, seemed to drive the whole piece.
The final movement was exhilarating. Awesome. It was met with a much deserved standing ovation.
In the fourth. awe was less abundant. Gergiev had his head buried in the score and beat a strict, slow, unyielding tempo, delivering each swoop and wave (tempi undulations that make this piece what it is) with as much grace as a 12-year-old's plotting of a parabola.
Again, it was precise but it was also very cold, very fragmented, a mechanical menagerie, like something Boulez might turn out, but without the conviction or thread.
Where was the charm, the naivety, the fun? Where was the sense — the sense you get in the amazing 1939 Mengelberg recording — of a child leading us through a theme park made of ice cream?
Having said all this, there were some interesting things: a long poetic line in the long adagio: some wonderful deep colours; and a whole number of pungent moments reminiscent of Shostokavich or Prokofiev.
The final movement, a vision of heaven seen through the eyes of a child. was sung unaffectedly by Laura Claycomb, though she seemed troubled by the phrasing of the recurring lilt that begins each stanza.
Appropriately the last bars are given over to the harp, its tolling bass notes, silk strings wrapped with wire. A sound somewhere between a thud and clunk. It's a Mahkrian speciality and Gergiev indulged us. allowing them to resound to their fullest.
There were two other pieces scheduled with the Mahler symphonies — neither very pleasant memories. Kavakos was overly can. flu l in the Sibelius violin concerto, Schonberg overly everything in his Pelleas and Melisande, an amusing and exhausting experience.
"He will never produce good elevator music," someone once said of Gergiev. In the fourth, Gergiev. nearly did.
But in the first we nearly missed our floor: a first-rate performance tc knock you down dead. Radio Three is playing it again at the end of the month. Whatever you do, don't miss it.