Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1909) [72:10]
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Roger Norrington
rec. live, 5 September 2009, Liederhalle Stuttgart, Beethovensaal
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.244 [72:10]
A lot of fuss has been made about Roger Norrington’s recent recordings of romantic repertoire, and this particular disc has had certain quarters in reviewing circles very hot under the collar indeed. The main source of the controversy is Norrington’s decision to use ‘pure tone’, that is, to do away with vibrato throughout the entire orchestra. This is something which we’re still used to in most brass playing, less so in the woodwinds unless you focus entirely on clarinets, but these days composers who want to stop string players from colouring their sound with a greater or lesser amount of more or less constant wrist movement is to mark the score clearly with a firm set of brake blocks: senza vibrato, forbidding the default setting of warm plushness which characterises the kind or orchestral string sound we expect today.
So, where is the problem? Critics have issues with Norrington’s historical basis for this approach. He cites the Vienna Philharmonic recording made in 1938 by Mahler’s assistant Bruno Walter as the end of an era, marking the finish of the orchestral sound which would supposedly have been familiar to Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner and the like. There is a certain amount of scholarship which debunks this view, and it is indeed hard to reconcile the implied ‘sudden’ rise of vibrato string playing within such the relatively short WWII period. True, European orchestras were dramatically altered by the tragic loss of so many Jewish musicians, but any such deep-seated style and tradition would have been in the purview and leadership of conductors who straddle both eras. I’ve looked at Bruno Walter on film, admittedly when he had become a senior figure in the music world, but I don’t see him bearing down on his string players for using vibrato in Brahms. Have a look on YouTube and listen to that final Adagio of the historic 1938 Vienna recording if you don’t have the CDs. Blow me down, but I hear vibrato in those strings, don’t you?There’s arguably not as much as on some modern recordings but it’s there nonetheless. Earlier orchestral recordings such as those conducted by Elgar indeed show restraint in terms of vibrato, but I have the impression this was more the British style of the period - like that represented by my old flute teacher Gareth Morris, whose old-school recordings also show a kind of vibrato-free purity. My theory is that it is probably true that the ‘rise’ of all-embracing vibrato has been relatively recent, but only in terms of degree. Perhaps we can’t imagine quite the rich Yves Rocher layers of modern vibrato-volume being applied when woodwind instruments like the flute were still made of the same kind of wood as conductor’s moustaches, but the aspiration towards a comparison between orchestral instruments and the desirable quality of a fine human singing voice has for a long time been a close one. As with all such things, change from patchy regional or national stylistic trends would have been accelerated by the advent of recorded sound, as the widespread export of best-selling orchestra’s qualities to every corner of the western world set the forces of sonic homogeneity in motion. You will of course note that my observations are based entirely on a complete lack of footnotes and academic reference. It just strikes me that we are looking at extremes, arguments both for and against pre-war vibrato going too far in their respective opposite directions.
Let me also put up my hand with a confession. As a flute player I am not a huge fan of excessive and constant vibrato, particularly the wide or relentless kind which has permanently put me off James Galway’s otherwise brilliant playing, and many singers in grand opera for that matter. I do however recognise that vibrato is a necessary part of sonic projection. It can be that quality in a player’s sound which brings the air and the acoustic to life, and which can bring a range of warmth and expression to a body of strings. I do however in the main agree with the position which sees vibrato more an ornamental quality, to be used as a part of the sound where appropriate but also to be held in reserve for dramatic or rhetorical effect. Norrington does allow the solo violin parts in this recording a certain amount of vibrato, differentiating the qualities of these moments from the main string lines. This works of course, but these moments boil down to basic accompaniment practice - you would never have your violins cooking at maximum while a solo line is being played anyway, and the same moments with Bruno Walter’s 1938 work in a similar way.
One or two preconceptions did concern me from the outset. One is that an orchestra of now being asked to play in the way claimed for orchestras of yesterday might be seen as something as a step backwards, by which I mean that the hard-won qualities of the SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra, placed in the straitjacket of vibrato-less playing, might suffer any number of negative side-effects. This is largely disproved by the recording, but I did maintain the feeling that the withdrawal of this kind of colour hadn’t entirely been filled by a convincing equality of quality without. The other is that by doing away with vibrato entirely, we are denied its qualities in terms of musical contrast and expression at moments of high drama and emotional climax where the sonic benefits of that widening expansion of sound would seem to be as welcome as a cold drink on a hot day in the middle of a large desert. In other words: does this recording work at all?
The answer is a kind of yes and no. With the exposure of the string lines into this pure sort of phrasing there arises the sometimes surprising advantage of a kind of bald clarity in Mahler’s contrapuntal writing which we more often than not miss in more sumptuous readings. Comparing that marvellous string-rich Adagio finale with the Bruno Walter recording held as the end of the era it purports to revive however, I find very few similarities. Norrington creates a kind of ‘chamber consolation’ version of the music. The qualities of string phrasing throughout the symphony and here are generated through a not unpleasant mezza di voce shaping of the notes, but apart from that there’s not much else left to describe. Even leaving the vast extremes of Bernstein’s Deutsche Grammophon Concertgebouw recording aside, which comes in at over 10 minutes longer than Norrington’s 19:24 timing, this version of the Adagio is brisk. Sir Georg Solti takes 24:47 in his 1982 Chicago SO recording on Decca and represents a more realistic average. With Norrington, the climaxes are effective only because the dynamics of the brass and percussion are communicated effectively. The strings contribute very little to the intensity of the whole, their sound where audible draped like a gauze over the power of the other sections, and when exposed frequently leaving much to be desired. Take that section where the strings are left behind with those few sustained notes when the full might of the brass and winds is taken away at 11:35. Doesn’t all the tension and excitement just evaporate completely?
For me, such crucial moments fairly swiftly discount this recording from becoming a realistic recommendation. There are some redeeming features which might be considered, and I do not agree with the vitriol which has been thrown in Norrington’s direction from some quarters. For one, this is not a clone of so many other recordings, trying to out-do famous fore-runners in the same field. This argument rides dangerously close to the ‘gimmick, stand-out-from-the-crowd’ aspect to this interpretation, but that would be entirely disrespectful to Roger Norrington’s strongly held views, and this is not what I intend in such a review as this. As a live performance there are many white-hot moments, and whenever I’ve played snippets of this recording to relatively non-musical office colleagues they’ve always still been held by that Mahler spell. This music really is that good. There are moments of poignant fragility which are revealed, unexpected points which sometimes encroach on your consciousness, or which can leap out and make you start revising your opinion of this magnificent piece all over again. These points will be different for each listener and I’m not going to list all of mine, but it is more often than not those areas of textural openness which can be most telling, from all sections of the orchestra, not only the strings. In some ways the qualities in this recording almost seem designed to reveal the strengths in others. It’s only when you start comparing this recording with the likes of Sir John Barbirolli’s 1964 Berlin Philharmonic on EMI that you begin to hear that there is so much more which can be so much better. My problem is not with the technical achievement of Norrington’s performance, nor do I have many issues with the quality of the recording. I’m not even that concerned with the vibrato issue, where it not for the vacuum it leaves behind in its non-wake. The first thing I found myself doing on an initial run through was listening out for traces of vibrato, and finding myself encouraged by the glimmers of expressive content in the violin and flute solos. Once I had passed that phase I did find I could enjoy the music for what it was, but each time I’ve come back to examples of trusted substance such as Barbirolli and Bernstein I discover the music anew, wondering what I had ever found as positive in this new recording. To the latter of these comparisons I admit a sentimental attachment as my dad was in the audience but still, it’s Bernstein who can bring tears to your eyes, Barbirolli who can make you sit and listen, slack jawed at the sheer brilliance of it all. Bruno Walter’s historic 1938 recording may be flawed in terms of technical neatness, but is excitingly intense, making the music sound raw and modern, which in those days it still was.
These are things I rarely have with Norrington and the SWR orchestra. I relish his clarity, and appreciate the ‘new look’ Mahler which makes us re-discover the music in ways other recordings cannot. My only remaining doubt with regard my own objective integrity was that, soaked as most of us are with the idea that vibrato = intensity, I was misinterpreting Norrington’s sound through the musical semantics of my own experience, unable to experience the leaner and perhaps more direct language of that bygone age because my expectations have been stained through that lack of purity which is restored here. Norrington’s own notes say “I hope that listeners to this recording will realise that the pure tone... does not at all detract from the impact of the sound, or the passion of the playing. I feel that on the contrary it can give a touching honesty and realism to Mahler’s music...” Once again, I don’t feel in a position to disagree with this in principle, but while I admire this experiment and have listened with great interest and a degree of enjoyment, I can’t help feeling that we miss part of what Mahler intended, “the symphony [which] must be like the world.” Perhaps we do have a glimpse of that world here, but I can’t help feeling it is only a part of that world, and I can’t resist imagining what Der Mahler himself would have thought...
....we spent a good hour or so, waiting patiently while Gustav became accustomed to digital sound, twiddling with the various knobs and buttons of the HiFi and laughing volubly.
“This is incredible... where, where do you hide the orchestra... they must be somewhere, it all sounds so real..!”
The serious business was however what he would make of the latest recording of his last finished symphony.
“...ah, it’s wonderful - it all sounds so clear...” Mahler was still marvelling, but a measure of impatience was becoming apparent in his manner. He was conducting the invisible orchestra, but not obtaining the results he so passionately demanded.
“Gah, naaahhh - come on, I need more life here - this should be the soul of man being torn from his very being... come on...”
We took a short break, and while the great man’s brow was mopped and tea was consumed I switched the discs in the machine. Solti and the Chicago players: that should do the trick, Mahler exotic and abroad - like a robust fine wine, a survivor on both sides of the Atlantic.
As these new sounds vibrated the atmosphere in the room changed at once, as if the air had undergone a kind of polarisation. Mahler’s eyes became misty, and, instead of conducting; trying to draw the imaginary orchestra in the air, he became an absorbent receptacle. He would shake loose a nervous tic from time to time but would more often close his eyes, raising his face to the light, his face sometimes moist with tears.
“...yes, this was not my orchestra, but this is my music...”