Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No. 9 in D (1909) [80.03]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 1967 ELOQUENCE 482 7163 [80.03]
It is hard to credit that this superlatively recorded performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is fully fifty years old, if only because it sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday. Indeed in many ways the balance and presence of the orchestra is better than in many more recent transcriptions of live performances that have emerged on CD over the years. When it first appeared on four LP sides it represented the best of Decca engineering at the time, and in this new issue it still sounds marvellous. The performance itself was subsequently included in the original series of Decca boxes containing Solti’s complete cycle of Mahler symphonies (he never recorded the Tenth, which he regarded as an uncompleted sketch rather than a finished work); but by the time the CD era dawned Solti had re-recorded it with his Chicago players, and it was this later version which superseded it in the subsequent CD boxed cycle. At the time of its original issues, the cycle included performances from Amsterdam and London as well as Chicago; similar complete cycles issued during the same period from Bernstein, Haitink and Kubelik were set down with the same orchestra throughout (with the exception of Bernstein’s Eighth, recorded in London rather than New York). Solti’s London performances of the First, Second, Third and Ninth are now emerging on the Eloquence label, and they are welcome not least because (as the anonymous booklet note here observes) “several music lovers” feel they are “more probing” than the Chicago re-makes.
It has also to be recognised that many critics over the years have expressed divided opinions on the merits of Solti’s performances. Even those who admit his mastery and dramatic involvement in operatic scores have voiced misgivings regarding his forays into the field of the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, for example; and his Mahler performances even in the 1960s were not greeted with universal acclaim, especially from more conservative reviewers who preferred the more ‘symphonic’ approach of Haitink or Kubelik. Many expressed their opinion that Solti was much too fond of the excitement of the moment, bringing out the emotional impact at the expense of the structure which underpins the music. I must admit that I have never been able to sympathise with that point of view. Mahler went to great lengths to ensure that his many dramatic effects made their full impact, littering his scores with footnotes to give future conductors precise instructions on how these were to be achieved (he was, after all, an unparalleled conductor of opera himself). It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that conductors who deliberately downplayed some of these dramatic effects in order to maintain a smoother symphonic structure weakened the force of the music by doing so.
Having said which, it is noticeable here that Solti does seem to be concerned to maintain this symphonic structure far more than he is usually given credit for. The first movement in particular, where rhapsodic musings can easily fall apart in less assured hands, is given a sense of steady progress which is most satisfying even when it misses the sense of mystery that permeates its closing pages. He may make rather a meal of the climactic passages in the Ländler second movement, and the speed with which he tears into the closing pages of the Rondo-Burlesque is terrifying in the wrong sort of way (the players sound petrified); but the finale, which can easily become becalmed, is kept moving purposefully forward in a manner that makes the dying fall at the end all the more impressive and involving. The orchestra too, in music that at that time was clearly not that familiar to them (the recording sessions took six days, where Chicago fifteen years later managed with two), relish the sense of discovery in a manner which is infectious and clearly communicates itself to the listener. The tone of the violins could be fuller to advantage (their whiplash figurations at the beginning of the third movement are swamped by the interjections of the over-enthusiastic wind players), but the sense of urgency – the “probing” – is all the more effective because of it.
Those who welcome the dramatic interpretation of Mahler will probably gravitate to Bernstein’s later Mahler cycle (better recorded than the sometimes scrawny sound that CBS delivered for the New York Philharmonic), but even so those who relish the sense of new discovery will relish Solti’s first thoughts on the symphony. And he does make the music sound very new indeed in places, with sounds that startle and surprise in the way that enthralled audiences in the 1960s and launched the Mahler revival which is still with us. The recording, which once spread over four LP sides (I owned it in that format), now comes on a single very long CD where many modern recordings – less urgent maybe, or more relaxed – spread onto a second disc. It has been a delight to re-make the acquaintance of a recording that gave me so much enjoyment, without the distractions of vinyl surfaces to contend with. Indeed, the existence of Solti’s Chicago cycle should never be allowed to overshadow the earlier London recordings which continue even after fifty years to fully justify their place in the catalogues of Mahler interpretation.
The booklet notes are brief but informative; we are also given a reproduction of the original cover of the LP box, a particularly striking image. Mind you, I have to admit to a liking for the clean-cut cover designs for the new Eloquence transfers of these recordings, which surely deserve a named credit. They are a vast improvement on the garish Ovation sleeves in which these recordings originally made their CD appearance.
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