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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no. 9 (1909, f.p.1912)
(1. Andante comodo [29:29]; 2. Im tempo eines gemächliches Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb [14:18]; 3. Rondo-Burleske. Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig [13:11]; 4. Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend [21:28])
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Maderna
Recorded Royal Festival Hall, London, 31 March 1971
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4179-2 [79:16]

Mahler’s Ninth, his greatest completed symphony as well as his last, is an almost unparalleled challenge for orchestra and conductor: four huge movements, each with its own complex, idiosyncratic architecture, each presenting huge difficulties of ensemble and execution. Add to that the sheer physical and nervous stamina required to bring it off, and it becomes clear why this is something of an Everest amongst great symphonies.

It’s not surprising, then, that a performance which is ideal for every listener is unlikely to be found, though many outstanding versions exist, by many of the greatest conductors of the past fifty years or so. Walter, Bernstein, Barbirolli, Haitinck, Klemperer have all recorded the work at least once, and there are fine modern discs by the likes of Zander and Tilson Thomas.

But this symphony, written in Mahler’s final years when the heart disease that was to kill him was beginning to sharpen his already intense awareness of mortality, needs something special in the way of involvement. It certainly gets that in this live performance from the early 1970s by Bruno Maderna and the BBC SO. In many ways, Maderna was the work’s ideal interpreter; as a composer himself, he felt part of a tradition that stretched back to Mahler and beyond, and regarded Mahler as his stylistic mentor.

Of infinitely greater significance is the fact that Maderna almost certainly knew that he was suffering from terminal cancer, and would thus clearly have empathised totally with the sense of panic and devastation that lurks in waiting on nearly every page of the symphony. The recording is poor – a run-of-the-mill live relay from the RFH, with constant audience noise, coughing etc. Yet the BBC SO play as if their lives depend on it, and there are quite wonderful contributions all round. Balance is unkind to the strings, yet, when given the chance they produce very great beauty of tone, and capture the neurotic emotions compellingly. The awesome climax at the heart of the great first movement (track 1 around 19:25), with the ensuing funeral march, is nothing short of terrifying, the bells chiming the end of a nightmare, calling us back to a maimed reality.

The two middle movements are equally brilliant, the Rondo-Burleske in particular receiving a shattering reading, pushing the music close to insanity in its blundering violence. Only in the final Adagio did I experience a certain disappointment. This is in part because, inevitably in a movement with so much very quiet music, the audience noise becomes for the first time a major problem. Partly it is because this is the section of the work which Maderna seems to find most difficult to conduct. He pushes the music on in places where Mahler specifies the exact opposite, e.g. track 4 at 9:21, where he allows the music to press forward, though Mahler asks for ‘stets sehr gehalten’ – ‘stay very held back’. Maderna also indulges in some unnecessary histrionics, with a huge break before the tempo primo at 12:04. Still well worth hearing, though, with some more very lovely string playing.

Temperamentally, I think, Maderna was far more ‘in tune’ with the visionary and expressionist tendencies of the first three movements. Nevertheless, this CD is an extraordinary document, and a must for anyone who, like me, is an abject admirer of this great masterpiece, and of the remarkable musician conducting it, who died far too early.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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