Hearing Mahler in a new light: a chamber version of his Ninth Symphony from the English Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (conductor). Filmed in March 2021 in the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, and streaming from 7.7.2021 (free-to-view for first four days). (JPr)

Kenneth Woods conducts the English Symphony Orchestra

Mahler – Symphony No.9 (for chamber ensemble arr. Klaus Simon)

Mahler composed his Ninth Symphony during 1909/10 and it was the last symphony that he finished though he never heard it performed. Having recently learnt of his wife Alma’s infidelity, it had a profound effect of the composer’s mental health, and this symphony is considered to be the most intense, self-pitying – possibly neurotic – of all nine he completed. Although it has the traditional number of movements (four) it is unusual because the first and last ones are slow rather than fast.

The symphony opens with a hesitant, syncopated motif (which some commentators – most notably Leonard Bernstein – have suggested represents in music Mahler’s irregular heartbeat) which is to return at the height of the movement’s development and marked within the score ‘with the greatest force’. This is described as a sudden intrusion of death in the midst of life, Moreover, the main theme also quotes – through three descending notes – the opening motif of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.26 ‘Les Adieux’. It means ‘farewell’ and that is what Mahler wrote at this point in his sketch for the music. This piano sonata coincidentally marked a turning point in Mahler’s early musical career as he played it during his graduation recital in college.

The second movement is a Ländler but one that has been distorted to a point where it no longer resembles a dance. It is reminiscent of the second movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony where the traditional dance is turned into a danse macabre (‘dance of death’).

The third movement, in the form of a rondo, displays the ultimate maturing of Mahler’s skills in using counterpoint. It opens with a dissonant theme in the trumpet which is treated in the form of a double fugue. The addition of Burleske (a parody with imitations) to the title of the movement refers to the mixture of all this dissonance with the Baroque counterpoint we are familiar with from Bach. The autograph score is marked ‘to my brothers in Apollo’ and the movement is no doubt intended as a sarcastic and withering response to the critics of his music at the time.

The final movement, marked ‘very slowly and held back’ (zurückhaltend, literally ‘reservedly’), opens for strings only. There is a great similarity in the opening theme to the hymn Abide with Me but most importantly it is a direct quote from the Rondo-Burleske‘s middle section, where it was mocked and derided: here it becomes an elegy. After several impassioned climaxes the music increasingly disassembles and the coda ends quietly, albeit affirmatively. In the closing pages, Mahler also quotes from the fourth song of his Kindertotenlieder where the words are ‘the day is beautiful’. Perhaps he means death is not to be feared, who knows?

The palpable sense of resignation and regret in the Ninth originates not only from Alma’s shenanigans but also because Mahler had been diagnosed with a dodgy heart and Maria, his favourite daughter, had recently died. However, in all the music’s desolation and angst there is often the delicacy of wistful nostalgia and perhaps Mahler is not thinking about his own passing but is using this symphony as a commentary on the end of the previous century and the beginning of the new one. Bernstein posited how the entire last movement symbolically prophesises three kinds of death: Mahler’s own impending death, the death of tonality, and the death of ‘Faustian’ culture in all the arts.

It is important to note that it was in this small orchestral way that many might have heard newly composed music like Mahler’s for the first time in the early twentieth century thanks to Schoenberg and his circle, the Society for Private Musical Performances. Critics were banned (food for thought?) and it gave them an opportunity to hear a first – or more often second – performance of a large orchestral work in a reduced form. It is in the spirit of those performances that arranger and conductor Klaus Simon has made celebrated chamber versions of most of Mahler’s music whilst attempting not to substantially alter or omit anything from the original score. In the case of the Ninth Symphony, in 2011 Simon trimmed the forces required from around 100 to a chamber ensemble (the English Symphony Orchestra list 17!) comprising solo strings, as well as solo woodwinds, two horns, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano and harmonium. (Crucially given its prominence in Mahler’s score the ESO replace the trombone with a third horn.)

The ESO offer in an intriguing 75 minutes which I will happily leave to other listeners to conclude how successful Simon’s reduction is. It is basically the CliffsNotes of this great work and ears used to a full orchestra must accept that the sound is radically different (especially with a piano and harmonium filling it out) and you are hearing the work in a different light. There clearly has been an attempt to create the original soundworld as much as possible but some of Mahler’s effects in this symphony only convince when all the players are playing together. The solo strings – however virtuosic the players (Zoë Beyers, Kate Suthers [violins], Helen Roberts [viola], Joely Koos [cello] and Stephen Warner [double bass]) – are often very exposed and it ends up sounding at times like a string quartet with additional instruments.

Kenneth Woods conducting Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Simon’s reduction of Mahler’s Ninth therefore has no low brass, contrabassoon, timpani or harp and that clearly lessened the impact of all the weighty Sturm und Drang and their harmonium and piano replacements are a little overused. There was a resulting gain in clarity and Kenneth Woods’s batonless conducting was unmannered and he was sensitive to the dynamic contrasts, rhythmic fluidity and shifting moods of the music: even if what we heard sounded more episodic than you would expect from the Ninth Symphony, and, for me, some passages had a Gemütlichkeit I associate more with Richard Strauss and his tone poems. Woods knows his Mahler in the minutest detail and has the ability to impart to his musicians the essentials of his interpretation and make them respond spontaneously and enthusiastically. The performance takes off with the quixotic Rondo-Burleske and music that relentlessly builds and builds, whist increasing equally in intensity. Woods and his accomplished musicians bring out all the mournful expressivity that is at the core of concluding Adagio. If such a reflective, deeply sad ending could be said to be satisfying, that’s the word that now seems appropriate.

I spent years as chair of the UK’s Gustav Mahler Society trying – and failing – to arrange something on the scale of this performance, if not bigger, and realise what a difficult task it is, regardless of any pandemic. For that alone this Ninth Symphony from Woods and the ESO deserve respect and the highest praise. I am loath to single out anyone, but the horns and trumpet stood out, as did the string players of course, excellent too were Laura Jellicoe (flute/piccolo) and clarinettists Alison Lambert and Sara Temple who doubled on bass and E-flat instruments with panache.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the English Symphony Orchestra (click here).

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