Mahler Munich Philharmonic: Maazel – a Different View from Lucerne

SwitzerlandSwitzerland MahlerLucerne Festival, Munich Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel (conductor) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne 9.9.2012 (JR)

Mahler: Symphony No. 9

My colleague Jens Laurson last week attended and reviewed the opening concert of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in Munich which commenced Lorin Maazel’s three-year tenure as Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic. Jens was evidently underwhelmed but thought that, with two more rehearsals, the result might be excellent.

Maazel and his orchestra then brought the same work to Lucerne and whilst I have a few quibbles, I thought the account and playing from the orchestra first-rate (perhaps they had another performance or rehearsal in between) – but I am not shackled by Maazel’s ten year earlier stint with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra back in the 1990s.

First some staggering statistics: I read in the Programme that Maazel in his career – thus far – he has conducted over 150 different orchestras in more than 5,000 concert and opera performances. If my maths serve me right, having started as a conductor aged 24, that’s nearly 90 concerts each year, not counting his 300 recordings and occasional compositions.

Having said that, it can, of course, be more exciting to experience a new young conductor at the start of his or her career (Birmingham can do it, after all, time after time) rather than witness the same old faces, but in these times of financial strictures, Box Office takings – sadly – have to be considered more than in the past. Maazel is still internationally a Box Office draw, though there were empty seats. He looked fit and fresh as he came on stage, and needed no chair during the long (nearly 100 minute) symphony, only holding onto the back rail of the podium for occasional safety. The intensity of the music and effort drained him of energy however and by the end he walked slowly off stage, appearing to hold his back.

On the podium Maazel was, as ever, elegant with his gestures. He was never one to contemplate raising a sweat. That did mean that tempi were rather fixed, but on the whole very finely judged. Only occasionally in the first movement did I feel that he had slowed to an unacceptable pace; but Maazel is too old a hand to allow the music to fall apart. Errors in the Munich performance appeared to have been ironed out, meticulous attention seemed to be given to every bar. Mahler knew his life was ending and in the opening 35-minute Andante one heard every shriek of agony and desperation from the orchestra. A very impressive touch were the huge church bells taking the place of the more usual tubular bells, intoning quite a different, more mellow sound, and evoking the Festival’s theme of “Faith”.

There may have been too little wit in the Ländler second movement, but the pace was jaunty and there were many fine touches, particularly when highlighting the “modern” aspects of the piece. The third-movement Rondo-Burleske was properly savage; Maazel revelled in the nihilistic counterpoint and brought the movement to a thundering and whirlwind close.

Mahler asks for „very slow“ tempi for his final Adagio and that is just what he got. The strings in their long chorale were full throated, and the evenness of the tempi here suited the work well. The symphony expired, almost inaudibly, leaving the audience bereft of breath.

Invidious – as often the case – to pick out particular players, but both trumpet and viola solos in the third movement were fine, as were the woodwind in the last movement; it was however a great team effort from this orchestra which on this performance deserves its place in the premier rankings.

John Rhodes