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.