‘We’re going to live for ever!’ declares Robert Powell as Gustav Mahler at the end of Ken Russell’s 1974 biopic. We’ve just had the big reveal (Russell said it ‘out-Hollywoods Hollywood’) in which Mahler admits to his young wife Alma that she inspired the lyrical theme in the first movement of his Sixth Symphony. It’s a tale for which the only source is Alma herself, but hey, over the course of the movie we’ve already had exploding garden sheds, interpretative dance and Cosima Wagner in fetish gear. Russell cues the music, and few film-makers have understood better how to cut to a composer’s emotional core. As the credits roll, the first movement of Mahler’s Sixth blazes triumphantly to its close, glockenspiel jangling. Russell leaves the tape running, and we hear the audience explode into cheers.
At this performance by the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Harding, there was silence. That’s not unusual in itself, simply normal concert-hall behaviour between movements of a symphony. But inter-movement applause, often curiously forced-sounding, has become common in recent Proms seasons — discreetly encouraged by the BBC, who’ve recruited Stephen Hough, no less, to confirm that ‘Brahms and Tchaikovsky would have expected applause’, though he stops short of endorsing other forms of enjoyable 19th-century audience behaviour: smoking, chatting through overtures and hurling fruit at unsatisfactory performers. Actually, it seems to have fallen off since July. Perhaps it’s a fad that’s run its course, because if any composer is going to trigger spontaneous applause, it’s that king of the Hollywood ending Gustav Mahler: an old stager who’d worked in theatres from the age of 19, and who still knows precisely how to twist a crowd round the tip of a baton.
But no, total silence, and I’m still wondering why.