Aureole etc.

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 (1909-10) [85’27"]
Four songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn* [15’50"]
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen* [15’57"]
* Yvonne Minton (mezzo soprano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
Recorded in *Medinah Temple, Chicago in March – April 1970; Orchestra Hall, Chicago in May 1982
DECCA 473 274-2 [116’41"]


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I missed this recording of Mahler’s Ninth when it first appeared. Catching up with it now has been a slightly perplexing experience. Remembering Solti’s spectacular, visceral recordings of the Resurrection and Eighth Symphonies, I was rather taken aback by his account of the first movement of this symphony. That movement is one of the greatest and most disturbing in all twentieth-century literature (in all symphonic literature?) and a successful performance should leave the listener drained, although to achieve this no histrionics are required from the performers; it’s all there in the music. Solti’s performance doesn’t quite achieve this.

In fact, to my ears he gives a rather autumnal reading and, whether or not he intended this, the more reflective passages linger most in this listener’s memory. Solti conceives the movement on a very broad scale and in parts it’s slower than I can ever recall hearing. Overall timings can mislead but it’s striking that Solti draws this movement out over 30’15"; longer than any other recorded version in my collection. By comparison Karajan, in his ‘live’ 1982 reading, takes 28’10", Barbirolli requires 26’53" and Bruno Walter, in his celebrated 1938 ‘live’ recording fairly whips through the movement (at least by comparison with Solti) in 24’47".

The reading is forcefully projected by the Chicagoans (and by the Decca engineers) and the playing is superb in many respects though sometimes I felt that quiet music was played too loudly. Having said that, I wonder if the very ease with which the CSO play the piece is part of the trouble. There’s little sense of the players being stretched to their limits. That would certainly have been the case in Mahler’s day. You can hear the Vienna Philharmonic having something of a white-knuckle ride with Bruno Walter in 1938 (and the performance is even better for it, I submit). The same is true, if to a lesser extent with the Berlin Philharmonic on Barbirolli’s 1964 reading, a recording made at a time when Mahler’s music was much less familiar to them, I believe, than later was the case. By 1982 had the Chicagoans become too comfortable playing Mahler, I wonder? (I believe they had taken the work on a European tour with Solti only the previous year.) So, in many ways this wasn’t a reading of the first movement which fully satisfied me (if "satisfied" is the right word.) though I must admit it made me think again about the music, even if I wasn’t sure about the approach. I ought to say that I responded more positively on my subsequent hearings than was the case the first time I heard the disc.

Solti once again chooses a fairly measured tempo for the second movement Ländler but I can live with this - after all Mahler marks the movement to be played "Im tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers" ("In the tempo of a comfortable landler"). Bruno Walter adopts a speed which is not dissimilar though, mind you, his strings really dig into the ländler theme in a way that even the weighty CSO strings don’t. On the whole I judge Solti’s account of this movement to be pretty successful although there were occasions when I felt he pulled slower tempi back further than Mahler might have wished. There are several nightmarish passages in this movement and these suit Solti who obtains graphic results from the orchestra.

The main allegro of the ‘Rondo-Burleske’ is as fiery and spectacular as you might expect from this interpreter. The movement bristles with hair-raising technical difficulties but the Chicago players seem almost impervious to them, even at Solti’s urgent tempo. The playing of the main material is biting, the music hurled at us. Yet the ardent but lyrical trio is also well done with Solti doing full justice to the trio’s beautiful melody of "tenderly consoling warmth", to quote Michael Steinberg’s felicitous phrase. The hectic coda is truly phantasmagorical in this performance and here Decca’s vivid recording really comes into its own.

The concluding adagio, in the remote key of D flat, takes us into some emotionally uncharted territory. I thought Solti’s account of was pretty fine, though not all Mahlerians may agree. Much of the music is very intense and passionate in his hands, the direct line of descent from Tristan und Isolde clearly emphasised. Others, I imagine, may look for a bit more objectivity. However, the great central climax (beginning at CD 2, track 1, 14’13") sweeps all before it up to the massive outpouring of emotion (at 15’24"). Is this a bit overdone? Perhaps on another day I might think so but for now I’m convinced by Solti’s view of the music while acknowledging straightaway that it’s only one view of it. I’m sure it helps that the playing of the CSO is so fantastic, especially that of the upper strings. The ineffably aching, bittersweet final pages are exquisitely drawn out and here again the superfine sustaining power of the Chicago strings is a decided advantage.

This is an unexpected and different account of one of the twentieth century’s most searching symphonies. I return to the comment I made about the first movement that Solti made me think again about the music even if I didn’t necessarily agree with the way he was playing it. That, I think, is true of the performance of the whole symphony and it’s a measure of Mahler’s achievement that he wrote so much into the score that is ambiguous or that challenges the listener almost as much as the performers. This would not be my first choice for the symphony but I’m glad I’ve now had the chance to hear it.

The songs constitute a generous filler. The performances originally appeared in tandem with Solti’s recordings of other symphonies. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was the coupling for his recording of the Sixth symphony while the other group of songs appeared with his performance of the Seventh. These performances will give much pleasure, I think. Miss Minton enters into the expressive world of Mahler very fully and she sings with understanding, feeling and intelligence. Her voice is lovely and records well. Her singing is absolutely secure throughout its compass and she is very expressive without ever a suspicion of being fulsome. Solti, who, I believe, worked regularly with her at Covent Garden around this time, and elsewhere and who recorded with her on many occasions, gives her excellent, understanding support. As a deeply experienced conductor of opera he had a great understanding of singers and how to accompany them and this shows to the full in these performances.

Just a couple of examples will suffice. In the third of the ‘Wayfarer’ songs, ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (CD 2, track 8) the opening is explosively urgent from both singer and orchestra, as is the case when the opening material returns. However, when Mahler demands a more finely spun legato line Miss Minton sings with exemplary control and poise. In the second of the ‘Wunderhorn’ songs, ‘Verlor’ne Muh’ Minton’s voice has a lovely lilt and there’s a twinkle in her eye as she relates the simple tale of country boy and girl. Happily, Decca provide texts and English translations. The recordings are excellent.

All in all then, this is a set which needs a qualified recommendation because most people will buy it for the symphony. Solti’s performance of the Ninth wouldn’t constitute a prime recommendation (for that I’d suggest Karajan’s 1982 recording or Barbirolli among the versions I know well with Bruno Walter’s 1938 reading essential additional listening despite sonic limitations). However, it’s an interesting, provocative reading which is well worth hearing and, as I say, the performances of the songs are very good.

John Quinn

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