A symphony is like the world: it must embrace everything

In the first of an occasional series examining how the masterpieces of the past can be reinterpreted today, Edward Seckerson considers Mahler's symphonies, all 10 of which can be heard at this year's Proms
At first it's almost imperceptible, something sensed rather than heard: a dewy haze of violin harmonics, a sustained A-natural which, only after the ear has fully adjusted to it, can be heard to extend through several octaves to string basses on the bottom of the world. Is this the sound of silence? Parched woodwinds venture a theme in falling fourths, there's a flurry of fanfares, a strange bird-like cry high in the oboes, distant trumpets. And then Gustav Mahler, symphonist and wayfarer, emerges from his brave, new dawn and the world sits up.

The opening bars of Mahler's First Symphony. What were audiences to make of it back in 1889? What were players to make of it? How to achieve and then sustain that distilled piano pianissimo, how to deal with the appalling pitch problems posed by those exposed woodwind entries. Remember, instruments of Mahler's day were that much more fallible.

But even now, ask any conductor, any orchestral musician about the very particular hazards of tuning and inflection in the opening measures of this extraordinary introduction. It's a very inexact science. And that's exactly the point. The hazards are all part of it: the primitive, elemental colour and cast of this music, the sense of something to be striven for, something to be achieved beyond the realms of the possible.

Mahler no more wanted a pristine, sanitised perfection in these opening bars than he did a suave, beautifully modulated double-bass sound in the crucial opening solo of the third movement. He had his reasons for casting this cadaverous voice in the role of chief pall-bearer at this particular funeral; he had his reasons for making a sinister dead march of the children's nursery tune Frere Jacques and pitching it so impossibly high in the bass's upper register that quality and security were severely compromised. He had his reasons for rolling out tawdry klezmer band music into the wake, pulling the focus on sour, close-harmony trumpets and raucous E-flat clarinet.

Mahler learnt about irony before he learnt about life. And there's an irony in the fact that the best of today's orchestras have so mastered the technical challenge of Mahler's music that such grotesqueries have now to be worked at if the character of the sound is to ring true. A double- bassist whose instrument and skill can now transform the nasal whine envisaged by Mahler into something worthy of a cello is completely missing the point. What was so plainly a push for the instruments and instrumentalists of Mahler's day is now something of a push-over. Seasoned Mahlerians the world over are having to work that much harder at the characterisation, breaking down, coarsening sonorities, intensifying extremes. A case, if ever there was one, for period performances, you might say.

And yes, doubtless they will come. On the other hand, Mahler's dream was of new beginnings, of a sound-world that drew upon the past but looked to the future: of strings whose corporate strength and lustre could more than adequately carry his aspirations onwards and upwards; of double-basses that could realistically convey the seismic upheavals of the Second Symphony; of horns whose eightfold unisons would rear up from the primitive rock- faces of his Third Symphony's first movement; of trumpets and trombones equal to the superhuman feats, the terrible confrontations of the voluminous Sixth Symphony finale; of sounds writ larger than he could possibly have imagined. All this has come to pass. But with it, a certain diminishing of the risks, the challenges of this music, the feeling that we may go to the brink and never come back. It's important that Mahler's music be forever dangerous. It isn't complacent, it isn't comfortable. Never was, never should be.

It's this terrible dichotomy in the music, torn as it is between the 19th and 20th centuries, between certainty and uncertainty, between a view of the world as it was and as it could be, or might have been. Leonard Bernstein once wrote that "Mahler's destiny was to sum up, package, and ultimately lay to rest the fantastic treasure that was German-Austrian music from Bach to Wagner... It was a terrible and dangerous heritage... But he had no choice, compulsive, manic creature that he was. He took all (all!) the basic elements of German music, including the cliches, and drove them to their ultimate limits."

Indeed he did. And it's there for all to see on every page of every score. Everything, but everything, is refined and exaggerated to the nth degree. When he writes a rest, it's a yawning, shuddering silence, his luftpausen are terrified intakes of breath, his accents titanic stresses, ritardandi are stretched to near-immobility, accelerandi are hurricane force. The loudest single dynamic marking in all Mahler comes in the Scherzo of the Seventh Symphony - one note, one sound, a startling pizzicato in cellos and basses marked fffff. And it must be the loudest single sound in the piece, like something in nature snapping.

Mahler's Scherzos are the underbelly of his symphonies: comedies of life, dances of death, nightmares of distorted rhythms and intimidating sforzandi with woodwinds that pop up and stare you out like apparitions in a spook show. They're designed to shock. And must. No half-measures. You take Mahler at his word or not at all.

And in this ordered, digitalised age of ours, there is a tendency to want to iron out the kinks in Mahler's music, to homogenise it, to rationalise the irrational. The emotional (and physical) gear-changing is integral to its character. By all accounts, Mahler conducted as he composed - idiosyncratically. His scores read like a running commentary of his intentions. Mark them well.

Consider, for instance, the momentous climax of the Second Symphony's first movement development. Once heard, never forgotten, the defining moment - marked molto pesante - when fate comes hammering at the door, a brutal sequence of chords laying bare every note of the C minor scale. The preceding four or five pages of score are peppered with tempo directions - "hold back ... much more marked ... don't hurry ... somewhat more pressed ..." - until finally the music hurtles out of control to hit the buffers at the molto pesante.

Now, there are those who lose their nerve at this point, deploying an unmarked ritardando to effect a smooth transition from accelerando to molto pesante. But the shock is in the suddenness. If you have the courage to do exactly as Mahler prescribes, to risk life and limb, bearing down with weight at precisely the point he asks and not before, the effect is devastating. And that's just one isolated instance.

It's amazing how many distinguished Mahler interpreters (past and present) ride roughshod over his directives, minimising or even eliminating altogether the effect of his more outlandish musical syntax. Interpreting Mahler is all about giving the music the room, length, breadth, weight, volume, space it so plainly demands. Long bows, long phrases. In Mahler even the short notes are substantial. And to those who advocate restraint - and to the well-known conductor who continues to insist that "Mahler needs no one to do his crying for him" - I say: an objective view of Mahler is no view at all.

Mahler himself foresaw many of these problems. The big Scherzo of his Fifth Symphony was, he predicted, "in for a peck of troubles!": conductors, he believed, would take it too fast, shorten its reach, undermine its spatial effects. The Mahlerian pause is writ large, larger, largest here: there are moments when all nature seems to stop and listen, horns - open and muted - echoing and re-echoing across the mountain passes. It's the very apotheosis of the Mahlerian Landler, his one truly affirmative scherzo. And if ever a single movement exemplified Mahler's view that "the symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything", this is it. Patience is all: this music must find its own time and space. The conductor who cannot rejoice in its quixotic changes of tempo, mood, and character, who is half-hearted, even apologetic, about its dramatic contrasts, attempting to square them with more conventional precedents, is not in concord with its inner life.

And therein lies the heart of the matter. The one-time financier and Mahler enthusiast, Gilbert Kaplan, recently initiated a campaign to rescue the Fifth Symphony's well-beloved Adagietto from its lingering Death in Venice associations. It is his belief that the tradition of performance has, in recent times, grown progressively more portentous: Mahler and his disciples took about eight minutes over the movement, compared to the average of 12 minutes that many leading conductors now take. Interesting observation. But it isn't that simple. In the first place, the title "Adagietto" bears no relation to the actual tempo markings, Langsam (very slowly) and its equivalent molto adagio. In the second, music does not live by tempo alone, and surely the question we should be asking is not whether so-and-so at nine minutes is closer to Mahler's intentions than so-and- so at nearly 14 minutes, but how the music feels, how it goes. Only when composer, conductor and players breathe as one will the phrasing seem imperceptible, will the commas and barlines in the score disappear. Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic take 11 minutes 13 seconds over the movement. But while you're listening to them, that's how it goes, and that's how long it takes.

n Mahler's Eighth opens the Proms: Friday 8pm Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212) and live on BBC2 and Radio 3