BBC Proms 2016 / 18: Mahler Symphony No.3

Me and Mahler became the best of friends on a beach on the south coast of Spain. It was a few years back now. One of me and the husband’s late-summer expeditions – a few days in Barcelona followed by a beach-based roasting. It was a Rattle box-set which got me hooked.

I never used to really ‘get’ Mahler until that holiday. Now I feel like I do. But, ask me to explain what it is about his symphonies you need to understand before you listen to them and I’ll struggle. But I think I might have an answer tonight: leave the detail to Mahler; all you need to do is sit back and marvel at what the great man conjures up.

And if you trust yourself (and pay close to attention to what’s going on inside your head as you listen), his music will unearth all sorts of unexpected things which (should) delight and fascinate in equal measure.

Don’t try and plot a route through his gargantuan creations. That’s not how Mahler works. You need to submit. And frankly, even if you don’t submit, you’ll relent soon after the music starts. That’s the thing about Mahler – his music is the kind of thing that pins you to the wall.

It slows me down. Stops me in my tracks. Forces me to stop and drop everything. At a moment’s notice, my otherwise banal surroundings can, without any warning, suddenly become fascinating and utterly absorbing.

Tonight’s Mahler was experienced in a similarly unusual location as the one I first heard his symphonic cycle. I’m spending the night before an early-morning jaunt to the Verbier Festival holed up at a no-frills hotel at Gatwick’s South Airport.

I love airports – as I explained at length in the run-up to my trip to Stockholm earlier this year – but I’ve never willingly wandered around one during the evening. It is the oddest experience being amongst people hurrying to get to their flights when you’re not in any hurry whatsoever.


The view from my hotel room is equally bizarre. Planes glide in silently from the left of the window and disappear on the right. Mahler’s 3rd symphony, under the direction of conductor Bernard Haitink, accompanies the tableau I’ve paid £100 for. It is a blissful experience. The perfect decompression.

Here in my middle class cell, my day-job presents itself as a curiosity. My three notebooks of varying size spread out in front of me are my best friends brimming with enthusiasm. And the untouched bed is an inviting treat from where I’ll listen to the Late Night Bowie Prom.

But long before that, it’s Mahler. I can get lost in Mahler. I’m a reflective person. Mahler helps me be at one with myself. I can see some of the people I come into contact with on a daily basis, observe them look on me with total incomprehension. I look back at them at the same time and wonder if they have any sense of what it is they’re missing out on. Mahler’s music engulfs you. You can do nothing but submit to it. That music written at the same time the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts came into being (1895) provides an escape from everyday life is a testament to the ongoing relevance of the art form I hold dear.

I’m not going to pick the performance apart. There’s no point. It was the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by 87 year old Bernard Haitink 50 years after his Proms debut. That’s all you really need to know. A billing that came with guarantees, and a performance which delivered spectacularly.

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