United Kingdom Mahler. BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Sondergård (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 7.2.2014 (PCG)
Mahler – Symphony No 9
In the dying days of the Austrian Republic before Hitler’s Anschluss of 1938, Bruno Walter made the first complete recording of this symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. The performance was riddled with mistakes and errors, and the 78 rpm sound (even in later remasterings) hardly begins to do justice to Mahler’s scoring, but that performance had a raw-edged sense of emotion and pain which has hardly been equalled since. Mahler wrote the symphony under the shadow of his own imminent death, the death of his children and the break-up of his marriage, but there is a sense of stoicism and resilience in the music that completely avoids the sense of wallowing in self-pity which can sometimes uncomfortably intrude in sentimental performances of some passages in his earlier symphonies. In this glorious performance, Thomas Sondergård seemed to deliberately seek to recapture that original sense of danger and peril, but the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in excoriating form managed to magnificently convey this without the problems that beset the Vienna Philharmonic in 1938.
After the Mahler revival of the 1960s, there has been an increasing tendency to downplay Mahler’s often bizarre orchestral effects and balances in favour of conveying a sense of more civilised ‘symphonic unity’ in his scores – a trend that began with Bernard Haitink and Rafael Kubelik – which has tended to soften the edges of the music. There was never the slightest sense of that here. Quieter passages which might have sounded odd, with woodwind solos obtruding in the balance – buzzing low bassoons, squawking clarinets, shrill piccolo and trumpets – were exact reflections of what Mahler had demanded in his score; and the result was to bring out the unfiltered emotional impact of the writing. Not that this precluded real romantic warmth in the string playing, particularly in the final Adagio where the violin tone filled the hall.
If one has to nit-pick, there were two possible concerns. The division of the violins left and right across the stage might have helped to clarify the contrapuntal textures, but on the other hand the resonance of the massed violins in unison in the Adagio would have been sacrificed. And the deep bells in the first movement, clearly notated by Mahler in the bass clef, were inadequately conveyed by tubular bells which were a couple of octaves too high. Neither of these points however detracted from a performance which was quite simply a magnificent representation of Mahler’s clearly expressed intentions, delivered by an orchestra at the top of their current excellent form under a conductor whose respect and love of the score shone through in every bar. The full audience were clearly enraptured, and responded at the end with ringing cheers.
Paul Corfield Godfrey