Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) Symphony No.9 in D minor, op.125 (arr. orch. Gustav MAHLER (1860 – 1911)) (1824) [59:44]
Gabriele Fontana (soprano); Barbara Hölzl (alto); Arnold Bezuyen (tenor); Reinhard Mayr (bass)
Slovak Philhamonic Choir, Tonkunstler Orchester Niederösterreich/Kristjan Järvi
rec. live, 29 September, 1 October 2006, Wiener Musikverein. DDD
PREISER RECORDS PR 90773 [59:44]

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.

Bob Briggs