Through his experience as both conductor and composer Mahler
came to the conclusion that because the size of the orchestra
had increased since Beethoven’s time, poor Beethoven needed
help. He certainly did, exactly in the same way as I need a
hole in my head.
Whilst Beethoven’s scoring may seem crude at times, he was writing
for what he had to hand at the time of composition - his music
was of his time. What we have come to understand, both through
authentic performance and good performances of the text with
contemporary orchestras, is that the music transcends its time.
It exists - for it is, quite simply, great music, and music
which enriches and feeds our souls. Beethoven is the guv’nor,
as a friend of mine says, and he always will be. All he needs
is our hearts and minds.
Over a century ago Mahler thought differently, believing that
the crudeness of Beethoven needed help, and he should be escorted
into the modern era, as the fin de siècle world then was. Thus
Mahler inflates Beethoven’s orchestra to Mahlerian proportions.
He makes it louder, and thus, ironically, cruder, and it becomes
a more difficult composition.
In February last year I attended the London première of this
version, conducted by Neeme Järvi, and although a good performance
– well played – it proved to be a vulgar, noisy, crude and very
unpleasant piece of work. In truth I wonder if Mahler really
knew what he was doing. Change for the sake of change isn’t
good. Change can only be worthwhile if the changes made are
to the advantage of the original – for instance, although fun,
Marcel Duchamp’s addition of a moustache and goatee to the Mona
Lisa adds nothing to the original.
This recorded performance has several advantages over that live
performance. Interestingly, Kristjan Järvi directs a performance
of some classical sensibility. The hugeness of Mahler’s vision
isn’t obvious and, indeed, you’d be hard pushed, at times, to
know that this wasn’t the original score. As a performance of
a piece of music, it’s good and solid, but whether Mahler or
Beethoven, there are better versions of the Ninth – and there
are over 200 recordings available!
Mahler’s orchestration is a curiosity only. It sheds no new
light on the work and it doesn’t really do it any favours. In
fact, if you’re going to record the Mahler version then it should
be splendid in its gaudiness, which this performance most certainly
isn’t. One for the very curious only I feel.