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Do orchestras play Mahler too well? For greater authenticity some suggest performances need genuine struggle

There is a new wrinkle today concerning authenticity in performance and it does not involve an old-timer like Bach or Mozart, but the turn-of-the-century hero of post-romanticism, Gustav Mahler.

Now it is being put forward that a Mahler symphony can be too well played: Because even average orchestras can play the music proficiently, the sense of struggle that used to be an integral part of a performance of any Mahler symphony is now a thing of the past.

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One has merely to go back to Jascha Horenstein's classic recording of the Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Symphony (currently unavailable) or the compelling F. Charles Adler recording of the Third Symphony with the Wiener Konzertverein (on Harmonia Mundi France) to hear just how unfortunate that attitude is. Despite the insights of the performances - both are stunning in their differing ways - the playing is intrusively spotty to downright terrible.

Put on the celebrated Solti recording of the Ninth with the London Symphony (London Records) or the Karajan and the Berlin (DG Records) and you will hear just how satisfying great orchestral playing really is in this music.

There is no substitute for proficient playing. Only when the playing is first rate can one really hear the richness of Mahler's intricate compositional style. If, however, the conductor does not fully grasp the Mahlerian idiom, merely trying to coax a passable performance from an orchestra will not be sufficient.

I have heard a good deal of Mahler in performance of late. The common thread through all the performances was that if a conductor really understood the work, virtuoso playing merely added another dimension to the performance.

Christoph Eschenbach's account of the First with the Vienna Symphony last October was a model of balance, of shrewd pacing, of literate adherence to Mahler's written instructions, yet hardly a shred of the extra-musical element - the sense of gargantuan struggle, the other-worldly vistas, the journey from the mysterious primordial to the triumphant blaze of affirmation - ever came across.

When Bernard Haitink brought his Concertgebouw Orchestra to New York last October, he programmed Mahler's thorny Seventh Symphony. It was superbly played. There seemed no part of the complex work that the orchestra could not cope with. Mr. Haitink had clearly thought long and hard about the score since the time he had recorded it as part of a complete cycle for Philips Records. He had found a way to get the jagged edges, the radical shifts in mood, the enormous chunks of melody and demonic interruptions to fit together seamlessly, logically. Yet seamless logic is clearly not what Mahler was after in this score.

Michael Gielen and his Cincinnati Symphony wrestled with the work last season , and he clearly understood this work. Though his orchestra was frequently defeated by the score's awesome technical demands, a sense of Mahlerian despair and chaos that outstrips even the utterly depressing Sixth, was in clear view.

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One could say that Gielen's orchestra proved that the ''wrinkle'' is right, yet had the orchestra been first rate, I am sure the audience would have been shattered at the performance's end both by the sheer impact of brilliant playing and by Gielen's uncompromising and unfailingly insightful view of the score.

That shattering impact could be heard with the Berlin Philharmonic when Herbert von Karajan played the Ninth in Carnegie last October. One could cite moments that were too perfect, where the decisions to make perfect sounds betrayed the humanity of that Mahlerian moment, but the cumulative impact of supervirtuosity in this music made an unforgettable impression.

Sir Georg Solti's latest try at a Mahler Symphony in New York with his own glorious Chicago Symphony in May 1981 was also the Ninth, and his account was blazing, searing, and superbly played.

Klaus Tennstedt wrestled with the Third Symphony when the Philadelphia Orchestra payed a visit to Carnegie last November. Oddly enough, considering his fine recording of the work, the performance seemed a parody of what makes this maestro one of the most electrifying romanticists in the world today.

Tennstedt, in an attempt to give a free-wheeling, spontaneous account of the score, lost his players more often than not (the Philadelphians played deplorably at times); the performance fell apart during the first movement, and never recovered coherency or cumulative impact. And this from a conductor and an orchestra that had rendered the most exciting Mahler First of my concertgoing career to date a few seasons back!

Here was a case of an orchestra struggling to get through the score, with the struggle bringing nothing to the performance except a sense of inadequacy.

So what is the result of this discussion? Perfect playing of itself is not enough, nor does an orchestra's collective struggle necessarily add to a performance that lacks control or viewpoint from the podium. Clearly, now more than ever before, a conductor who does not understand or respect Mahler will be shown up because orchestras can play the music so well. As ever, only a great conductor can get great things out of great music.

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