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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1909) [75:23]
London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Ludwig.
rec. November 1959, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
EVEREST SDBR3050 [75:23]

Just recently, I reported on a selection of extracts from some Everest CDs that I’d heard in the MusicWeb Listening Room. I was very impressed with both the sonics and the quality of the performances. One of the recordings we sampled then was of Ein Heldenleben in a performance by the LSO and Leopold Ludwig (review ~ review). I resolved to hear the whole performance as soon as possible. I haven’t had the time to do that yet but what I have been able to hear is this performance of Mahler’s Ninth, set down by the same artists just a few months later in the same venue.
 
I must admit that Leopold Ludwig (1908-1979) is a conductor whose work has been little known to me. I’ve mainly been aware of him for his fine contribution to the recordings by Emil Gilels of the last two Beethoven piano concertos which has long been one of my most-admired Beethoven discs (review). This Mahler Ninth gives us an excellent opportunity to evaluate him as a conductor.
 
Before considering the performance it’s worth remembering that in 1959 this symphony would not have been anything like as familiar to the musicians of the time as is the case nowadays. I wonder how much rehearsal was possible before these sessions; perhaps a concert performance preceded the recording. The results are very impressive: the LSO plays splendidly and with great assurance for Ludwig.
 
The excellence of their playing is confirmed by the recorded sound. Frankly, it's amazing and no allowances whatsoever have to be made for the fact that the recording is, at the time of writing this review, a few weeks short of 55 years old. A copious amount of detail emerges, though without any undue spotlighting of instruments. Additionally, there’s a wide but not exaggerated stereo spread, and there’s also a fine dynamic range which means that the soft playing is well reported but also that the climaxes register with impressive power. The only slight reservation I have is that the treble frequencies – high violin lines and the flutes and piccolo – can sound a little bit shrill in some loud passages. As Everest used 35mm film to record the performance there’s no hiss. All in all, this recording was an impressive achievement by producer Bert Whyte and engineer Aaron Nathanson while Lutz Rippe has re-mastered the original master tapes very successfully for this reissue.
 
Ludwig’s way with the score may not be to all tastes. Compared to some conductors his approach to the first movement is direct and, at times, almost no-nonsense. Thus, for example, as early as 0:21 there’s no easing into the string melody which, in truth, starts in a slightly prosaic fashion. It’s worth persevering, though, for Ludwig’s straightforward style brings its own rewards: his conducting is cogent and he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. By the time I’d got five or six minutes into the movement I was caught up in the performance and as it unfolded there was ample passion and fire but everything is well-controlled. True, there were times when I wished for a bit more ‘give’ in the music – around 8:45, for instance, or in the closing pages – but Ludwig’s taut, objective way with the score has much to commend it. He has a tight grip on the musical argument and an evident command of detail and he held my attention throughout. Anyone reared on the likes of Bernstein or Tennstedt in this music may find the interpretation underpowered – and on another day I might agree – but Ludwig’s objective approach is a very valid alternative.
 
Ludwig adopts a pretty brisk tempo for the Ländler theme at the start of the second movement and every time this material is revisited he’s consistent in his pacing. Mahler uses the word gemächlichen – ‘leisurely’ – in his tempo indication and Ludwig is certainly not leisurely. Personally, I think the core tempo is too swift and as a result when Mahler moves to a new, quicker tempo (at 2:10) there’s insufficient contrast. However, other passages in the movement are more shrewdly judged and some listeners may be relieved that Ludwig doesn’t fall into the trap of making the Ländler sound too portly. The Rondo-Burleske is fast and furious. Ludwig takes no prisoners here and the music has a vivid, frenetic feel, as it should. The recording allows us to hear all the teeming detail of Mahler’s scoring and that’s very welcome. It’s a slight disappointment that the slow section, which anticipates the finale in spirit, is not treated rather more expansively (5:27 – 7:44). Here I don’t find Ludwig as expressive as many other conductors and as a result there’s insufficient feeling. The last reprise of the Rondo (from 9:35) is electrifying; the LSO articulates the music terrifically despite Ludwig’s very challenging tempo.
 
The great concluding Adagio is noble and eloquent though, once again, Ludwig refuses to wear his heart on his sleeve and thus, commendably, avoids making the music sound overwrought. No one should feel short-changed, even if not every last drop of emotion is wrung out. I like the way that Ludwig maintains a sense of flow. The LSO rises magnificently to the occasion, its strings eloquent. The horns are magnificent too, especially in their contribution to the extended climax passage (14:19 – 17:15). Arguably, those fragile closing pages could and should have been drawn out a bit more but, aided by some very sensitive string playing, Ludwig brings to symphony to a quietly satisfying close. I was pretty impressed by his account of this movement.
 
So, this may not be a reading that displaces the very best in the pantheon of Mahler Ninths on disc but this unfairly unsung recording is a significant achievement nonetheless. It’s well worth the attention of Mahler collectors, especially since the sound is so fine. I’m jolly glad that I’ve heard it.
 
When I sat down with my notes to type this review I did a bit of searching on MusicWeb International to see if I could find links to any other Ludwig recordings. I came across a review by Tony Duggan of a 1957 recording of Mahler’s Fourth that Ludwig made in Dresden. I was fascinated by one passage in Tony’s review in which he says this: “this is a very straightforward, supremely unmannered performance compared with many other versions - an antidote to those who take the view that every expressive opportunity in Mahler's scores must be attended to as though under a magnifying glass … Leopold Ludwig was a fine conductor with a high reputation and must have decided his own approach from the start. That said I still cannot help wondering whether he felt he couldn't really test the players as much as he may have liked in music they hardly knew. More experienced Mahler listeners may be disappointed with the "hands-off" approach that emerges, therefore. But there are still some dividends to be had from this recording.” Those comments mirror uncannily what I feel in particular about Ludwig’s account of the first movement here.
 
I’m delighted that this Everest recording is once again available and I’d urge all who care about this towering symphony to hear it.
 
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Mahler symphony 9