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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1904-1905) [87:40]
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (1906) [97:57]
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1908-1909) [95:52]
Sally Matthews (soprano) – Magna Peccatrix
Ailish Tynan (soprano) – Una pœnitentium
Sarah Tynan (soprano) – Mater Gloriosa
Sarah Connolly (mezzo) – Mulier Samaritana
Anne-Marie Owens (mezzo) – Maria Ægyptiaca
Stefan Vinke (tenor) – Doctor Marianus
Mark Stone (baritone) – Pater Ecstaticus
Stephen Gadd (bass) – Pater Profundus
Philharmonia Voices; BBC Symphony Chorus; Eton College Chapel Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
rec. live, May-October 2011, Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
German texts and English translations (Symphony No 8) included

This is the third and final instalment of Lorin Maazel’s live Mahler cycle, given with the Philharmonia in 2011. The first two volumes appeared within a short time of each other: Volume I contained the first three symphonies (review) and Volume II comprised Symphonies Four to Six (review). Both of these volumes appeared before Maazel’s death in 2014.

This is announced as the last issue in the cycle but in fact Maazel included Das Lied von der Erde and the Adagio of the Tenth Symphony in his series of concerts, although my Seen and Heard colleague, Jim Pritchard, who had attended several of Maazel’s other Mahler concerts, was disappointed on that occasion (review). The Rückert-Lieder were also given as part of the series (review) as were some of the songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn (review). Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen were performed in Manchester (review) and, I presume, in London too. It would be good if these other Maazel Mahler readings could be preserved on CD.

The present set opens with the Seventh, which is arguably Mahler’s most enigmatic symphony. It took me some time to get to grips with it over the years but it is a very rewarding score. If it’s to make the right impression on the listener, however, it needs a very persuasive hand on the tiller and I’m by no means sure that it receives such guidance from Maazel. The opening of the substantial first movement is marked Langsam but Maazel’s way with the music is not just slow in pace; it’s also heavy handed. Looking for another live recording, the first I came across on my shelves was Simon Rattle’s CBSO version, made for EMI in 1991. Rattle’s initial tempo is not significantly faster than Maazel’s but he imparts more lift into the music. Signum’s notes are by Julian Johnson and very good they are too; I suspect they were written for the concert itself. Describing this movement he says “The slow march of the opening eventually gives way to a much more energetic one.” Yes, it does; but not here. Though he varies his tempi as the movement unfolds Maazel’s overarching vision seems to be dark and expansive. At times the interpretation is impressive in its own way but all too often Maazel’s broad tempi deprive the music of momentum and a sense of where the musical argument is heading. When the final huge climax is reached (at 24:55) it’s taken so slowly that the passage seems never-ending. The whole movement is ponderous in Maazel’s hands. Timings tell you only so much but I think they’re instructive here. Maazel takes 26:22 whereas other live versions I have in my collection seem to reach a consensus: Rattle takes 22:06; Markus Stenz 21:09; and Klaus Tennstedt 22:10.

The second movement is also rather deliberate in pacing but this seems to me to be more in keeping with what is, in essence, a night march. Maazel displays excellent attention to detail and an acute ear for Mahler’s strange textures. Listening, I felt that goblins and other strange creatures of the night were being evoked. There’s more liveliness in the third movement which is well imagined by Maazel; once again he shows his understanding of Mahlerian style. In his hands the music is biting and, as Julian Johnson observes, modern in tone. The sentimental charm of the Andante amoroso comes across quite well though Maazel’s way with the music is rather heavier and slower than either Rattle or Stenz. It was in the finale that I’m afraid I finally gave up on this performance. Granted it’s not an easy movement to bring off but for me Maazel is far too serious in music that has a great deal of surface festivity in it. He makes it sound powerful rather than extrovert. Sad to relate, but I’d become bored quite a while before the end and the conclusion really drove the nail into this particular coffin: the final peroration is so extended as to be portentous. It won’t surprise you to learn that Maazel’s timing is three or four minutes longer than the three rivals I’ve previously mentioned. Of these, Stenz is the quickest – perhaps he’s just a bit too quick – and I hear genuine brio and jubilation in his reading. Rattle is pretty close to Stenz in both pacing and mood and Tennstedt is also successful.

I fear that this is one of the least successful interpretations in Maazel’s cycle, though the Philharmonia play very well. In fairness I should say that my Seen and Heard colleague, Jim Pritchard, who knows a thing or two about Mahler, attended the concert and was much more positive (review). Maybe this is a performance that it was better to experience live than through repeated listening on CD.

Maazel’s approach to the Eighth, with which he concluded his cycle in the concert hall, is also often spacious. At the start of the setting of ‘Veni, creator Spiritus’, which constitutes Part I, he doesn’t go for headlong excitement; rather, the tempo is steady, albeit forward moving, Maazel seeming to opt for clarity, weight and definition. He pulls the music right back for the ‘Imple superna gratia’ section, which is introduced by the soloists. The whole of this section is expansive and prayerful but I think the performance is perilously slow. Maazel just about gets away with it but I suspect that his treatment of these pages may have worked better in the concert hall than it will for repeated domestic listening. ‘Accende’ and the tumultuous passage that follows is forthright and controlled but I felt that the music is held on too tight a leash. Part I is brought to a big, imposing conclusion. Maazel’s approach is impressive in some ways but I feel he misses Mahler’s incendiary energy. When I looked at the timing I found that he takes 30:18 over this movement. By contrast Klaus Tennstedt takes 26:19 while in Sir Simon Rattle’s Birmingham account Part I positively flashes by in 23:42; I selected those two recordings, which are very different from each other and which I rate highly, because both are live readings.

In the extended orchestral introduction to Part II Maazel’s conception is again broader than those of the two aforementioned alternatives. He takes 12:16 over this passage where Rattle takes 9:45 and Tennstedt 10:03. The Maazel performance is very atmospheric at the start and then becomes impassioned. Though his he takes longer over this section than the other two conductors I think it works, thanks to the quality of the playing and to Maazel’s concentration of focus. It is in Part II that we hear the soloists in individual solos. As Jim Pritchard noted in his Seen and Heard review the sopranos are occasionally inclined to shrillness both here and in Part I though overall their contributions are good and the two mezzos are excellent. Stephen Gadd sounded somewhat effortful in the Pater Profundus solo though it must be admitted that Mahler’s vocal line is very unforgiving. Mark Stone does well as Pater Ecstaticus. Jim had concerns about the tenor, Stefan Vinke who, incidentally, also sings on Jonathan Nott’s recording. I must say that I was impressed. He floats the line at ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinne’ most appealingly and later on he’s very good at ‘Blicket auf’. The orchestral passage that follows the ‘Jungfrau’ solo is exquisite, as is the choral and orchestral episode that follows (‘Dir, der Unberührbaren’).

In fact, as this long movement wore on I became more and more drawn into Maazel’s conception of the music. The Magna Peccatrix solo (‘Bei der Liebe’) is as expansive as I can recall hearing it but it works. Not all is refinement: the Blessed Boys make a deliberately robust sound and I like that very much. From the appearance of Mater Gloriosa onwards there’s a radiance about the performance. The chorus entry at ‘Alles Vergängliche’ is wonderfully hushed; hereabouts Maazel really casts a spell. The conclusion has genuine grandeur though I have the impression that the sound is cut off pretty swiftly after the final chord, presumably to eliminate applause.

This is a highly individual account of the Eighth. It’s not the best I’ve heard but it’s often compelling.

The Ninth receives a remarkable performance. The start of the big first movement is very measured with every phrase carefully considered. That really sets the tone for the rest of the movement. Maazel is consistently spacious in his unfolding of the music and even at points where other conductors speed up the music quite a bit his shifts of tempi are slow by comparison because they relate to his core speed. When I tell you that his reading of this movement clocks in at an astonishing 35:48 you’ll get some idea of how broadly conceived this performance is. I looked out some other versions, deliberately choosing ones that are also live recordings. By chance all three that I considered were played by the Berliner Philharmoniker. In Sir Simon Rattle’s very fine 2007 recording the movement plays for 28:56 (review). Leonard Bernstein’s 1979 performance on DG, the solitary occasion on which he conducted this orchestra, takes 27:37 and Herbert von Karajan’s 1982 Berlin Festival performance, also on DG, lasts for 28:10. All these three conductors in their different ways dig deep below the music’s surface and I think we can say that there’s a reasonable consensus between them as to the movement’s duration. Maazel, taking at least seven minutes longer, ought to sound turgid. True, there were times when I wished he’s pushed the music on but his consistent, single- minded approach is compelling. The basic speed is surely too slow for Andante comodo yet Maazel has his own, very intense vision of the music and he pulls it off. The very end of the movement seems to go on for ever – and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. Such an approach demands able and strongly committed playing and that’s just what the Philharmonia provide.

Lest it should be thought that Maazel is intent on playing the whole symphony as slowly as possible the middle two movements dispel any such idea. I would describe his tempi for these two movements as “conventional” in the sense that they’re broadly in line with what we’ve come to expect from many other conductors. Indeed, I’ve heard several performances in which the Ländler of the second movement is taken at a steadier pace than Maazel’s. He does this movement very well and the waltz material is suitably bluff and gawky. The Rondo-Burleske is trenchant and strongly projected while the slow, nostalgic passages are beautifully done. When the Rondo material resumes the performance is full of bite, the deliberately grotesque side of Mahler’s writing brought out.

An expansive approach is adopted once again for the great Adagio finale. Maazel is very eloquent and his orchestra are equally eloquent in their delivery, the contributions of the strings and horns being particularly noteworthy. The passage of music that unfolds over a two-note harp figure (14:23-16:35) is unusually chill and remote and thereafter the ascent to the movement’s climax is very intense; here you sense Maazel is digging very deeply into the music. The passage after the climax, dominated by horns and strings, is taken broadly and is deeply felt. The Adagissimo final pages (from 24:40) are very distant and poignant; here the control and refinement displayed by the Philharmonia’s string section is quite outstanding. At the end the music dies into nothingness and we are left, as it were, staring into infinity.

My Seen and Heard colleague, Christopher Gunning attended this concert. Looking up his review after listening to these CDs I see that he was impressed and I’m not surprised. This is an extraordinary reading of the Ninth. It may not be a “central” interpretation but it’s a performance touched by greatness.

So, as with the previous two volumes in this series we have a variable set of performances here. The Seventh is an interpretation to which I’m unlikely to return often. Maazel’s view of the Eighth is very individual; overall it’s an account with a lot to commend it, despite a few reservations. The Ninth is extraordinary, showing the veteran conductor taking nothing for granted and producing a reading of tremendous intensity and individuality. A performance such as that one demonstrates that at his best Maazel was a great conductor.

Throughout these performances the Philharmonia play very well indeed – and often much better than that. The recorded sound is good and Julian Johnson’s notes, which I suspect were the concert programme notes, are insightful and well worth reading.

I do hope that Signum will issue the other works that were performed by Maazel and the Philharmonia during this Mahler cycle.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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