In 2025, Amsterdam hosts the third Mahler Festival – a century after its first edition. The Royal Concertgebouw and other orchestras from across the world will perform all of Mahler’s major orchestral works and songs over ten days, 9th–18th May. The first festival, held in 1920, presented all nine symphonies led by Willem Mengelberg, and was attended by a slew of luminaries including Alfredo Casella, Carl Nielsen, Otto Klemperer, Arnold Schoenberg, Alma and other members of the Mahler family. It inaugurated a burst of enthusiasm for Mahler in the early 1920s.

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Poster for the 1920 Mahler Festival, Amsterdam
© Mahler Foundation

But antisemitism and prejudice would overtake Mahler in the interwar years, even before his works were banned outright by the Nazis. Such is the hold that Mahler’s music holds over us today it can be easy to forget the level of hostility that greeted it during his lifetime and in the years after his death. In its 1911 obituary, the Viennese Alldeutsches Tagblatt described him as a “Jewish patriot who lived entirely for Judah”, and a “Nibelung dwarf who came to power from the darkness of the pariahs”.

The 1920 Amsterdam Mahler Festival arguably represented the high watermark of Mahler appreciation in the first half of the century. It was only after the 1960s that Mahler would again be thought of seriously and regularly programmed. The occasion of the 2025 festival, 105 years after its first incarnation, is as good a time as any to reflect on a century of Mahler appreciation, and what his music means for us today.

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Klaus Mäkelä leads the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Fabian Schellhorn

The festival opens with Klaus Mäkelä leading the First Symphony on Friday 9th May, following the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfairer), which the symphony quotes, performed earlier that day. The youthful Mäkelä is the Concertgebouw’s newly-appointed future Chief Conductor, and he mirrors the youthful energy of the symphony itself. Mahler wrote to his best friend Friedrich Löhr in 1888: “It has turned out so overwhelming it came gushing out of me like a mountain torrent!”

Mahler’s songs are performed throughout the festival by a variety of singers, together with pianist Julius Drake. Notable appearances will include Axelle Fanyo, Catriona Morison, Fleur Barron and many others. Also appearing are the Chianti Ensemble to perform Mahler’s early Piano Quartet, and Thomas Beijer to perform his solo piano version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (alongside works by Mahler’s contemporaries Janáček and Zemlinsky).

On Saturday evening, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra are joined by Christiane Karg, Anna Lucia Richter and the Netherlands Radio Choir for the Second Symphony, the first appearance of a Hungarian orchestra at the Mahler Festival (apt, given Mahler’s own stint as director of the Royal Hungarian Opera). Theodor Adorno conceded that the Second Symphony was “the work through which, probably, most have come to love Mahler” (though it was not to his taste). Fischer returns two days later for that other quintessential newcomer’s Mahler, the Fifth Symphony, alongside the Kindertotenlieder.

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Fabio Luisi conducts the NHK Symphony Orchestra

This Mahler Festival will also be the first to engage an orchestra from Asia. The previous festival in 1995 utilised, aside from the Royal Concertgebouw, only the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and Mahler Jugendorchester. Thus the arrival of the NHK Symphony is something notable. The NHKSO were themselves pioneers of Mahler performance in Japan, making the first full-length electrical recording of a Mahler symphony (the Fourth) in 1930. They will be performing that same symphony on this occasion too, as well as the Third Symphony, Mahler’s longest, on Sunday and Monday. Fabio Luisi leads, and is joined by soprano Ying Fang for excerpts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

American orchestras were also crucial to Mahler’s mid-century “renaissance”, notably the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, but also the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner (who recorded the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde in 1960) and Georg Solti (who issued Symphonies 5, 6, 7 and 8 a decade later). For the Mahler Festival, the Chicago Symphony performs the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies on Wednesday and Thursday, under Jaap van Zweden – himself principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, as Mahler had been a century earlier.

Mäkelä and the Royal Concertgebouw return on Friday for Mahler’s grandest spectacle, the Eighth Symphony. Mahler himself called it “the grandest thing I have done yet”, adding: “Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” It is a popular work, especially on festive occasions, but it remains controversial even amongst convinced Mahlerians (Adorno detested it). Perhaps the work’s innocent abandon, its second youthfulness, can be brought to the fore by Mäkelä.

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Kirill Petrenko and Daniel Barenboim with the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

The 2025 Mahler Festival concludes with the appearance of the Berliner Philharmoniker, on Saturday and Sunday. Kirill Petrenko conducts what many hold to be the composer’s finest achievement, the Ninth Symphony. The following day, Daniel Barenboim is scheduled to conduct Das Lied von der Erde and the first Adagio movement of the unfinished Tenth Symphony. These are Mahler’s most deathly works, gesturing at things eternal and departed. (It is a shame that Deryck Cooke’s completion of the Tenth won’t be heard in its entirety – as Mahler’s final movement sketch is overwhelming in its ghostliness.)

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Gustav Mahler, Vienna, 1903
© Mahler Foundation

But the festival contains more than enough music already. If ever there were a time to fully assess Mahler as an artist, the scale of his contribution and his meaning for us in the present, it will be the 2025 Mahler Festival.

See all listings for the 2025 Mahler Festival.

This article was sponsored by Het Concertgebouw.