Maazel’s Mahler Cycle Nears Its Close With a Magnificent Reading Of the Ninth Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Mahler: Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.10.2011 (CG)

 Symphony no 9 (1909 -10)

When Mahler died in May 1911, he left two major completed but unperformed works; Das Lied von der Erde, and the Ninth Symphony. The Tenth Symphony remained incomplete apart from two movements and sketches for the others.

Mahler’s life is particularly well documented; it was not short of dramatic incidents and tragedy. One of his two children had died in 1907; his wife Alma Schindler had a long-standing affair with the architect Walter Gropius; he fell out with Vienna Court Opera (of which he was director) and was regularly subjected to anti-Semitic abuse. He had been diagnosed with a heart condition in 1907, but although advised to avoid strenuous exercise, continued with extremely taxing concert tours conducting the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras. His own music had been introduced little by little to mixed reception, although with the massive Eighth Symphony he scored a particularly notable success in 1909.

Mahler’s indomitable spirit spurred him on against all manner of difficulties, but it was inevitable that his life dramas would find their way into his music, and never was this more the case than in his very last works. Much has been made of his apparent obsession with death, but while there are certainly passages in the Ninth Symphony where Mahler seems to be peering over the precipice, there is hope too – joy, even. It is crucial that all these elements be fully represented in performance, and in the end it is perhaps Mahler’s love of life which underpins everything; without that intense love, despair and frustration would mean nothing.

Maazel’s view of the composer has been gaining some mixed responses during this current cycle. When there have been criticisms, reviewers have found his tempi to be slow and ponderous; I, however, thought his performance of the Fifth Symphony in London superb. The fact is there are dozens of interpretations which will work, pleasing some and displeasing others. People become obsessive and even make careers comparing versions by conductor x and conductor y, and I read a reviewer’s detailed ‘take’ on no less than ten different recordings of the Ninth recently, finishing up in knots. So I go back to basics; I listen to the marvel of Mahler in this extraordinary symphony and ask some simple questions. Does this conductor understand what Mahler intended? Does he have a firm grip on the complex structure of the score? Does he guide the orchestra successfully through the emotional journey set out in the music? And do the players respond in a way of which Mahler might approve?

The conductor Kurt Sanderling has been much in my mind recently, not only because of his recent death, but because some sixteen years ago I attended a performance of this same symphony in this same hall with this same orchestra, and was duly reduced to mumbling wreck status. Sanderling was eighty-two and approaching the end of his long career, and I thought then, as I thought watching the eighty-one year old Maazel tonight, that there is almost bound to be something especially poignant about an old man’s view of this music. Sanderling gained universal respect as a conductor who spurned showmanship and strove valiantly to get to the very heart of the music. Would I remember Maazel’s performance in a similar way?

Things didn’t start too well. The tempo was leisurely, as marked by Mahler, but the gently rocking opening was thrown slightly off-kilter by a French horn that was beautifully played but a little too loud. Things settled down thereafter, and the extraordinary form of the first movement, with its combination of themes and moods seemingly at odds with themselves, made its full effect, with the returning “sighing” motif always feeling threatened by the next altercation. And what of the recurrent rhythm that, according to Bernstein, was supposed to represent Mahler’s irregular heartbeat? Yes – it was there, but not given undue prominence and anyway it is now reckoned that the composer’s leaky heart valves would not necessarily cause an irregular beat. Most importantly, it was impossible not to feel that this was indeed the start of a long journey encompassing just about all that life has to offer; serenity mingled with frustration, torment, and – well, let’s not give away the end just yet. And, equally to the point, the orchestral playing was terrific, with some particularly fine and anguished work from the strings; and, not to be outdone there was some fabulous playing from the woodwind department, with all solos magnificently done.

The second movement is another of the composer’s unique creations, and Maazel took things at deliberate tempi, with the ländler sections feeling genuinely rustic and the ironic waltz sections full of wit. What was going through Mahler’s mind? He seems to be looking back with a mixture of affection and ridicule; and that’s how the music struck me in this performance, with some marvellous verve and wit emanating from all sections of the orchestra.

The third movement, more-or-less a classic rondo structure, displays, among other things, Mahler’s love of J S Bach; it is highly contrapuntal yet, as is so frequently the case in this symphony, there is a mocking undercurrent to the whole movement. What is required here is energy, and we had it, particularly in the closing bars where the orchestra positively erupted! Elsewhere there was amazing work again from the woodwind (superb clarinets!) and, in the penultimate section, real angst from the strings, given just enough spaciousness for their gloriously expressive role.

The strings mostly dominate the textures of the final movement, and they set off with the most gloriously passionate tone I’ve ever heard from a British orchestra, or, for that matter, any orchestra anywhere. Here, Mahler is returning to the world of his Second and Third symphonies and also to his most recently completed work, Das Lied von der Erde. This is surely where Mahler contemplated his own death, and, although certainly tinged with regret, it is not a death viewed with complete hopelessness. Instead it looks forward to the possibility of peace after death; Mahler was never devoutly religious, and yet it has been remarked that he was never closer to God than during this movement.

I found the account tonight persuasive in every way – it is really astonishing how the music reaches its two climaxes and then disintegrates little by little, as if reluctant to bid farewell. The last page, containing fewer notes, perhaps, than any other symphony, was not spoilt by a few unmuffled coughers in the audience who had been asked prior to the concert to stifle any unavoidable coughing. There followed a long silence, which is always a clear indication that this symphony, and its performance, had left its mark. And I would gratefully have listened to the whole thing over again.

If Maazel’s reading is not to everyone’s taste, so be it, but I do not think anyone could be in any doubt that his is a totally authoritative and committed interpretation, and that the Philharmonia continues to be on absolutely top form and the match of any orchestra in the world.

Christopher Gunning