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S & H Concert Reviews

MAAZEL CONDUCTS MAHLER, Symphony Nos. 9 and 3, London Symphony Orchestra, Dolora Zajick (mezzo), Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, New London Children’s Choir, Lorin Maazel, Barbican, 20th and 23rd June 2002 (MB)


Placing Mahler’s most Dionysian symphony against his most death-haunted was in part inspired programming: one, a work so extreme in its form that it led Walton to comment, ‘It’s all very well, but you can’t call it a symphony’, the other a work so conventional as to be a paradigm of a what a great symphony should be. They are the composer’s only symphonies to end in slow movements, and both, under the right baton, are capable of embracing almost universal truths. This was not quite the case in these performances – both amongst the slowest interpretations I have ever heard of these symphonies – but in the case of the mighty Third Maazel came very close, despite the fact the work languished under a sky of luminous and exotic colouring for an extraordinary 111 minutes.

Both works were gloriously played by the London Symphony Orchestra – indeed, I can’t remember a performance of the Third which exuded such beauty of tone and phrasing. This was a pantheistic reading, one in which the brightness (and precision) of the brass was juxtaposed with a super-refined string tone. There were moments of stasis when the music almost drew to a halt – and these were much more common than one would have wished for (a long pause during the development of the first movement gave the impression of this as a movement of two halves, which it isn’t). And, beautiful though the playing was, Maazel almost succeeded in breaking the back-bone of this symphony – the four shorter movements following the epic first lasted considerably longer as a whole than they should have giving minimal meaning to the inner movement’s genesis. Dolora Zajick proved an uninteresting soloist and found difficulty in conveying much sense of the Nietzchean setting. Her pianissimo singing proved less than compelling, her somewhat harsh tone at odds with the beauty of the orchestral balance. Her opening words, ‘O Mensch’ were hurried, her diction erratic and lacking precision.

The performance achieved its aims in its outer movements. Both were spacious, but that spaciousness was illuminating for the potent power it unleashed. Climaxes, so often under-developed in this work, were mightily rhetorical. Maazel has developed an almost Celibidache-like style in his latter years of letting the notes breathe, and the epiphenomena of the outer movements was compelling to hear. A lot of inner detail, particularly among the woodwind, was ravishingly defined. Whilst by no means a conventional interpretation of this symphony Maazel’s was sustained over its long journey by an innate inner ear. Without that, and without the intensity he drew from his players, the performance would almost certainly have collapsed into oblivion. That it didn’t is a minor miracle.

Unfortunately for Maazel, his performance of the Ninth almost did. This performance suffered from the start with an opening movement that defied long-term logic. In one of the most motivic of Mahler’s movements the sheer breadth of Maazel’s tempo inflicted irreparable damage on the ever-changing harmonic line and polyphony. This opening movement simply did not add up to the sum of its parts; rather than setting the rest of the work’s development in motion it became separate from it making this a performance so divisible by structure it ultimately lacked meaning in the context of what follows it.

The second movement Ländler did not really assume the mantle of character that it should. Whilst tempi were certainly more flexible than they had been in the opening movement the differences between the movement’s dance elements – two waltzes and two ländlers – were less distinguishable than should have been the case. The folksy, Bohemianism of this Mahlerian sound world was somewhat ectopic, displaced and misshapen. The Rondo itself came across as less grotesque, less grim than in other performances. Rather than generating an almost mutilated jollity it seemed to suggest a coarse irony. However, the movement gained considerably from Maazel’s spacious tempo for the slow, songful middle section – played, dynamically, as perfectly as I can recall. As the movement spiralled towards its conclusion – with playing of frightening accuracy – at last it seemed that the conductor had set up the requisite contrasts for the symphony’s conclusion.

The slow Finale was beautifully characterised – if nothing else - dispelling the promise of the Rondo’s closing pages. Disciplined (if occasionally prosaic) horn playing sat alongside the long-breathed awe of the LSO strings, but what the movement actually came to mean alluded both conductor and orchestra. What should have been retrospection became introspection.

Maazel’s Mahler Ninth causes great problems from a critic’s viewpoint. On one level, one can, indeed did, admire the quality of playing (the Wieder zurückhaltend marking – bar 122 of the final movement – produced such seamless up and down bow playing from the violins it was awe inspiring. The New York Philharmonic strings in a Mahler Nine last year simply fell to pieces here). On the other hand, the performance failed to grip and lacked mystery. Perhaps the applause that followed on immediately from the Finale’s closing bar suggested likewise; there was certainly little need for contemplation amid the silence.

Marc Bridle


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