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Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Rafael Kubelik
DG Collectors Edition, 463 738-2, 10 discs, Bargain Price

There are two long reviews appended here from Marc Bridle and Tony Duggan


Kubelik's complete Mahler cycle has been in and out of the catalogue - both on LP and CD - and has been widely commented on.

I have never quite found any of these interpretations particularly persuasive and having started my listening with the Ninth (the first recorded in this cycle) quickly remembered why. Kubelik's approach to Mahler can often be abrasive - and in the Ninth there is ample opportunity to sample Kubelik's unsubtle use of dynamics and balance. Part of the problem lies in the recording which is extremely harsh - this music needs space to breathe and doesn't receive it here in a clinical, dry acoustic. Kubelik's treatment of the brass lines reminds me of Eugen Jochum's unhealthy obsession with brass balance in his Dresden Bruckner Eight: sour, distorted and only played at forte or louder. Additionally, Kubelik's tempo are often questionable, his adagio lacking all sense of divinity and timelessness, clocking in at just over 21 minutes.

Things do get better. The performance of the First (incorrectly titled the Titan in DG's booklet note) is a lithe and poetic performance, again on the fast side, but more compelling for the directness of the tempo. His use of rubato, so disastrous in his handling of the Third and Ninth symphonies, is here less of an issue. Again, there are problems with the recording which place the violins, more recessed than is normal, somewhat at the back of picture. Their loss of bloom is all the more regrettable.

Kubelik's 'Resurrection' has much in common with Klemperer's but ultimately lacks that performance's granite strength. Having said that, his final movement is a monumental achievement, breathtaking in its scope and sense of affirmation. The Third is a bewildering performance, often stoical, but often collapsing under the weight of Kubelik's impassivity to tempo. The Bavarian Radio Orchestra plays with some bite, and there is no lack of tension in the sprawling first movement, but there is a distinct lack of sparkle to this performance, often exaggerated by an introversion this symphony does not deserve. The Fourth is a lightweight performance, the Fifth wild at times, and no more so than in the closing movement. His treatment of the adagietto, so typical of performances of the time, is lush and romantic, and the worse for it.

With the Sixth and Seventh symphonies we reach more complex ground. Both of these symphonies are hard to bring off in performance - and for different reasons. The Sixth actually requires more balance and shape than Kubelik provides - his outer movements are wantonly paced. There are no problems with the tempo dragging in the first movement, but should this movement really be taken at this speed? Hearing Bernstein and Thomas Sanderling here the answer becomes apparent. What the Kubelik lacks is a sense of struggle and expressiveness. The Seventh is not as dark or as mysterious as I would like, but Kubelik is admirably straightforward in a symphony that can often weaken even the greatest Mahler conductors.

The Eighth has an extremely fine sense of drama to it. It is also well sung. If it ultimately lacks the visceral quality that both Solti and Sinopoli brought to this work it is still well worth hearing - and is probably the jewel in this collection.

I can see the reasoning for Deutsche Grammophon to release this set at bargain price, but they also have two other fine Mahler cycles on their label, not including Abbado's complete edition of the symphonies. Both Bernstein and Sinopoli offer more interesting perspectives of these symphonies. It is a pity they couldn't release either of these for their Collector's Edition. The Kubelik is indeed an old war-horse, but it is also a very tired sounding one.

Marc Bridle

Tony Duggan says:

By nature Rafael Kubelik was an unassuming man who believed in serving music rather than having music serve him. His Mahler cycle from 1967-1971 reflected that perfectly. So you often see expressions like "understated", "lightweight" and "lyrical" ascribed to it. It's all relative, of course. Now that we have the opportunity to listen to his whole cycle in one go, symphony by symphony, where the only comparison that needs to be made is with the symphony you heard immediately before it, the virtues of his distinctive performances will become more apparent than they would if you listened to them in isolation or, more especially, in comparison with other people's. Of course these are such protean works to start with that there is room for a wider range of interpretation by the conductor than with any other composer (save perhaps Beethoven) to suit the widest range of tastes and opinions. True, Kubelik is especially good when Mahler goes outdoors, back to nature and the "Wunderhorn" moods of earlier. But he can also surprise in those later works where a more astringent, Modernist and fractured approach is called for. Especially if you are prepared to see those crucial aspects through the tinted glass of nature awareness and as always in context with how he sees the works that go before and after them.

Let's deal first with the Wunderhorn group, Symphonies 1 - 4. The First is one of the finest versions before us. Kubelik seemed to recognise more than any that this is a young man's work tied to nature, song and rejected love. Notice the start of the first movement and the purity brought to the dreamy opening, the freshness and piquancy of the birdcalls and the unfussy way he phrases the main theme. In the third movement he is more aware than most of the grotesques but never distorts the music or smooths out the ironies. Then he crowns the recording with a last movement that stresses the dramatic but not at the expense of lyricism or ardour.

In the Second Symphony the first movement has enough weight but within a challenging, electric tempo similar to Klemperer's and with spirituality at arms length. The first development's ascending theme is strong on pastoral character as again Kubelik brings out the "Wunderhorn" character. As the second development approaches he is almost as fine as Klemperer bringing out the strange colours and then note the urgency with weight again as the climax of the movement approaches: a headlong rush that counts and is probably closer to the tempo Mahler wanted. In the second movement Kubelik is aware of the need for contrast and delivers one of the most distinctive versions available. Following this precise timps shatter the mood and the pulse quickens for the third movement. By speeding up and not making much of the offbeat qualities Kubelik plays down ironies. The start of the fifth movement has all the drama and majesty you could want with some wonderful shudders on lower strings. The "voice in wilderness" is imposing and the delicacy of horns over harps and woodwinds and the fluttering of violins and deep growls from basses and contrabassoons with bass drum show Kubelik anxious to bring out every unique sound. The grave-busting percussion crescendi are short-changed and the subsequent march quick but in the overall context all tells superbly. Missing is Klemperer's trenchancy but admire Kubelik's sense of architecture right through the movement and his piercing Bavarian brass is thrilling. There is a sense of rapture following the choral entry and you can hear all departments of the orchestra well.

Kubelik's recording of the Third Symphony is a classic, one of the finest in the catalogue to be ranked alongside versions by Horenstein, Bernstein and Barbirolli. It has a unity and sense of purpose that lifts it above many. It also pays as much attention to the inner movements as it does the outer - not as common as you might think - with playing of poetry, charm and that hard-to-pin-down aspect wonderment. Only Horenstein surpasses in the rhythmic pointing of the Scherzo and in the first movement Kubelik echoes Schoenberg's belief that this is a struggle between good and evil. Listen to the wonderful Bavarian basses and cellos rocking the world with their primeval uprushes and those raw trombone solos, as black as doom. Kubelik also manages to give the impression of the movement as a living organism, growling and purring in passages of repose, fur bristling like a cat in a thunderstorm. In the last movement no one offers a more convincing tempo than Kubelik, flowing and involving.

Listening to his version of the Fourth Symphony straight after I admired the way Kubelik recognised this as a smaller scale, chamber-like work. As always his tempi are on the quicker side but never at the expense of detail. Early in the first movement notice the clarinet chugging away around the strings and listen to how the music sours significantly in the Development. Kubelik also has a nice line in the grotesque with the bassoon memorable and, as the central crisis approaches, hear the squeals of flutes and oboes. The second movement follows on from that kind of mood with the solo violin balanced forward to make its "out of tune" effect. A fine prelude to the lovely performance of the slow movement where the same singing line as Walter in maintained. The woodwinds against the strings are reproduced beautifully in the recording. One early commentator dubbed this "Klangfarbenmelodie" ("Tone-colour Melody"); a term used later by Schoenberg and that link between these two Viennese composers never seemed more significant.

In Symphonies 5 - 7 Mahler moved into a new phase and matters are more controversial under Kubelik too, less easy to draw firm conclusions over. But these recordings are still no less interesting and crucially no less an example of Kubelik remaining true to himself which is, in itself, impressive.

The Fifth gets a very lean and hungry performance. The first movement has no "fat on the bone" of the orchestral sound so this means it's rather lacking in the Tragedy department. A significant loss especially as this whole symphony works on balancing Tragedy with Triumph and all stops in between. The second movement is excellent, quick and fierce, but the steely, abrasive edge on the recorded sound really becomes a trial, distorting the sonorities badly. However, Kubelik's pacing of the disparate episodes is faultless. Things improve in the Scherzo where there is spring in the step and poise in the delivery: a feeling of joy and carnival though again the sound is still a problem. This was the last of the symphonies to be recorded so the question of the sound quality is even more perplexing. There is another Mahler Fifth from Kubelik and this orchestra on the market, a "live" one on the Audite label (95.465) that makes this studio version seem like a blueprint in that the later one is a touch more substantial and spacious where it counts.

Though recorded three years before the Fifth the Sixth Symphony gets much better sound here and Kubelik's riveting performance leaves me more satisfied. However, the first movement has always raised eyebrows in that it's very fast. Not as fast as Scherchen's frantic, disfigured account on Tahra, but faster than most. Certainly it assists in stressing the classical nature of this most classically structured of Mahler first movements and therefore the nature of the Tragedy being enacted - Greek rather than Jacobean. It also makes us see Mahler's "hero" prior to the tragedy that overwhelms him in the last movement "in full leaf and flower" and therefore corrective to those accounts that seem to want to condemn him from the start - Melodrama rather than Tragedy. If we see him like this I always argue his fall later on in the work carries far more power of loss. The Scherzo is placed second and Kubelik reinforces the energetic rigour of the first movement admirably, as ever consistent and uncompromising to his own vision. Here too those sharp edges apparent in the Fifth find their natural home. So I find this account of the Sixth compelling and it ought to further remind us Kubelik was an exponent of 20th century music to a degree that is sometimes forgotten. The third movement is free flowing and unselfconscious and notice the nostalgic solo trumpet that is as echt Mahlerian as you could wish. Finally in the last movement few conductors suggest the menace and tension in the remarkable opening pages so well. The rest of the movement - essentially a sonata form structure - balances the first in being direct and sharp with the Tragedy not so much underplayed as integrated into the structure. As so often with these performances, it is only less impressive when compared with some other versions. In the final analysis I think more space, more weight, is needed throughout and at particularly crucial nodal points (the two hammer blows are too lightweight in preparation and delivery, for example) to really move and impress.

Finally in the central group comes the Seventh. This version has always been a favourite of mine and, I think, Kubelik's too. He learned the work from Erich Kleiber for whom he once prepared a performance. Again this is a performance utterly consistent with Kubelik's general approach and there are dividends - more than is the case with the Sixth and certainly the Fifth. As with the first movement of the Sixth, under Kubelik the Seventh's first movement is more fluent and active than many with symphonic structure paramount. Kubelik is also alive to many of the new sounds Mahler experiments with, an impression accentuated by the close-in recorded balance which is occasionally "boxy" with piercing, almost "baroque", trumpets. In the second movement I admire the way Kubelik remembers this is a march and the way he doesn't attempt to smooth out any of the textures. Indeed, this is one of those recordings (Gielen's and Scherchen's are others) where the abrasive qualities in this score are attended to. The malevolent Scherzo finds Kubelik and the orchestra on top form. The faster speed and close recording really helps suggest every nerve end exposed. After quite a tense second Nachtmusik the last movement goes off like a rocket led by the prominent baroque trumpets and, at the end, a wonderful hosanna of bells. Though the inability of the recorded sound to fill out might bother some. There are also passages where you feel this is Mahler "In Bohemia's Woods and Fields", but remember Mahler hailed from the same land as Smetana and Kubelik so this comparison is not inappropriate.

Kubelik's recording of the Eighth Symphony suffers first from the restrictions of the sound recording. There are enough voices deployed in the choruses but the engineers fail to really give the impression of space and weight. There is also a key element of grandeur missing in the performance of Part 1 with Kubelik oddly direct to the point of correctness. To me he seems to choose a middle course between dynamism and lyricism but fails to deliver much of either. Part 2 fares better. The Prelude is impetuous and well argued and later on notice the passages where Kubelik brings out the "Chinoisserie" Mahler will rely on so much in "Das Lied Von Der Erde". The passage for the Younger Angels, "Jene Rosen, aus den Handen", is as good an example of this as any. This recording has a fine solo team too with Fischer-Dieskau notable as Pater Ecstaticus. However, not even he can save this performance from failing in the last analysis to deliver the numbing experience Mahler surely intended. An interesting performance and a noble failure, but a failure for all that with a rushed close leaving me longing for the unforgettable choral climax as delivered by Jascha Horenstein on BBC Legends (BBCL 400-7).

There is no studio recording of Kubelik in "Das Lied Von Der Erde" so it's on to the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies in Mahler's final group. The first movement of the Ninth gets a very flowing, dynamic performance with, like the Seventh, some of the "nerve endings" exposed. Kubelik presents the crucial opening material, the building bricks of the movement, directly, almost clinically. The tolling harp is especially impressive. This is a tough reading aware of the jagged contours of Mahler's late sound world with lines very clear. The second movement is full of character and the Rondo Burleske contains tension, though there are more unhinged versions to be found out there. Don't let the overall timing of the last movement put you off. Just less than twenty-two minutes might seem short what matters is an overall pacing like this fitting in with those of the other movements, and it does. There is fine string playing, rich, passionate and well recorded, which is surprising when you remember this was the first in the cycle to be taped. I think Kubelik has the same ability Bruno Walter had to take the movement in one breath. It doesn't plumb the depths of despair; it doesn't move you in the way you might wish to be moved, and the closing pages do not convey that sense of stasis that Mahler surely meant, but don't dismiss this recording. This is not one of the strongest performances in the set and in the final analysis its inability to get under the skin of the work becomes apparent on repeated hearing, but it earns its place.

All that's left in this box is the Adagio first movement from the unfinished Tenth. Kubelik never embraced any of the performing editions of the sketches so you could dispute the ethics of playing only one movement of a work Mahler meant to have five. However, I think Kubelik makes up for this in being the only conductor to record just the single movement who then makes it seem like a complete work in itself. Almost as if he has managed to convince himself Mahler really did stop at the end of this movement.

Two good essays by Constantin Floros and Karl Schumann come with this set which has each disc housed in card envelopes contained in a very compact cardboard case that will slip easily into a bag.

For me this Mahler cycle has lasted in a way many might have believed it would not and rehearing it, especially like this, has been a rewarding experience even though there are individual recordings that I prefer over many of them. There are verities and truths here corrective to many of the more "demonstrative" versions. This is Mahler that eschews the display of the virtuoso's bag of tricks, a set of recordings that avoids positively what might be a quick fix and therefore stands the test of time and rewards re-acquaintance. It certainly sends you back to other versions with a different attitude. Like a retreat to the Mahlerian equivalent of a Trappist monastery, you come back with your batteries recharged.

Under a lesser talent than Kubelik the brickbats these performances would attract might strike home. But this man was the kind of musician who when he did anything there were good reasons for it and those reasons demand serious consideration. 


Tony Duggan

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