The previous one-star reviewer may have been very brief, but I can only agree, heartily. I've read many books on Mahler, and this is by a wide margin the most ridiculous and superfluous of them all. Did Mahler and his symphonies 'change the world'? Of course they didn't, and the closest Lebrecht comes to substantiating this silly claim is the observation that the Gorbatchovs were moved by a performance of the Fifth. The subtitle of this book gives a good idea of the overblown hyperbole with which it is filled. Lebrecht comes up with the weirdest notions about the symphonies in order to make them look relevant to our time: the First is about child death, he says, the Fourth about racism, the Sixth about war, the Seventh about impending ecological disaster. He offers only the skimpiest of underpinnings for these far flung ideas, if any at all. He also seems to forget that Mahler's symphonies don't need any such help.
It gets worse in the biographical section of the book, where the facts are decidedly subordinate to Lebrechts Big Idea about Mahler, i.e., that the composer was influenced to a very great extent by his jewish background. Let me quote one striking example of Lebrecht's method - and absurdity. It is a description of Mahler's and Alma's wedding. The groom, says Lebrecht (misreading Alma), when trying to kneel tripped over his prayer stool and fell flat on his face instead. The priest mocked him for it, gratified to see this little heathen duly floored. Why did Mahler really fall, wonders Lebrecht? He thinks he found the answer on a visit to the wedding location, the Karlskirche in Vienna. Over the high altar is the Hebrew tetragrammaton that symbolizes God. Mahler must have seen it, guesses Lebrecht. It confronted him with his ancestral heritage and the fact that a Jew like he had no business being in a church. Guilt and betrayal overwhelmed him and he had to create a diversion to get his act together again. Says Lebrecht - how very clever! Now for the facts. Mahler didn't fall to the floor at all, he simply knelt on the floor instead of on his prie-dieu, which, given his small stature, was a comical sight and drew some laughs. He cannot possibly have seen the tetragrammaton, as the composer and his wife were not married in the church itself, but in its sacristy, in order to avoid a public happening. It may seem just a detail, but Lebrecht's account of Mahler is riddled with such re-writes, leading up to such absurdities as claiming that Mahler's interest in the word 'ewig' is explained by its similarity to the Hebrew eh-vig and its association with the eternal, wandering Jew.
Fact, conjecture, exaggeration and sheer fiction are mixed in a most disturbing way all through, so as to make Alma's memoirs look like a fount of objective fact by comparison. Not, perhaps, surprising from an author who just had a recent book retracted by the publisher due to it's many factual errors. Lebrecht quotes juicy bits from Alma's memoirs several times, by the way, only to add that of course they aren't true. So why quote them? Several times he slips into I-mode and weaves personal anecdote into Mahler's biography of which the relevance usually remains unclear. Sometimes the point seems to be no more than just to say to the reader, 'I knew Anna Mahler'. Peronal sympathies seem to be a strong guide for Lebrecht anyway; the Sixth is about war, because... Tennstedt said so once, during a dinner party.
I found it pretty disgraceful to see an author who plays fast and loose with the facts like this criticize La Grange for being tedious and superficial.
In the third part of the book Lebrecht shares his personal preferences regarding Mahler on disc. The listing is random, superficial and of course utterly subjective; at times, too, it remains unclear which recording he actually prefers (but why would you care). Statements he makes about the music can look knowledgeable at first glance, but at second glance turn out to be completely meaningless. "Miss the irony of the false-Brahms theme and the first movement fails," he says about the Third. But there is no evidence at all that this is a deliberate quote and there is any irony intended. And if so, how can a fortissimo unison theme played by 8 horns be made to sound ironic? Characterizations of interpretations seem to be guided mostly by the going stereotypes regarding conductors, so that Kubelik = bucolic, Boulez = coolly analytical, Solti = overexcited, et cetera. As elsewhere in the book, nonsense is not avoided. "It comes as close as any record has got to absolute notational accuracy," Lebrecht says about Kaplan's Vienna recording of the Second, and then his vanity prompts him to add: "I know because I was at the sessions." As if one needs to be at the sessions to be able to judge if a recording is true to the score. Didn't a single editor look at this book before it went into print, one wonders?
So why Mahler? Lebrecht, in his overblown attempt to elevate Mahler to the status of a post-modern deity, forgets one very simple reason why Mahler is so popular. Listen, for instance, to the embarrassing applause bursting in right after the final pizzicato in Von Eschenbach's Philadelphia recording of the Sixth. This is not an audience shaken to the core by Mahler's devastating message; this is an audience elated after a wild orchestral thrill ride. A friend of mine once said after hearing Mahler's Fifth, "It's a kind of pornography, isn't it?" I think he hit the nail right on the head when it comes to the question why Mahler draws big crowds.
And why Lebrecht? Honestly, I couldn't tell you.