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
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
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.