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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D major [80:03]
London Symphony Orchestra/Georg Solti
rec. 1967, Kingsway Hall, London, UK
ELOQUENCE 482 7163 [80:03]

This recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – the first of Solti’s two for Decca - was made some four years before he was awarded an honorary knighthood (which was made official the following year when he became a British citizen).

I attended a concert hall performance of the work he and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) gave towards the end of his career. A little to my embarrassment, I can recall few details of the performance, other than to say that there seemed little to fault, with virtually flawless playing from the orchestra (if one accepted that body’s powerful trademark brass sound). In short it was eminently acceptable, while not being especially memorable in either a positive or negative sense.

My reaction to this recording with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) is rather similar. It has playing of impressive precision and tonal depth. Solti takes an objective, relatively unromantic view of the music and the excessive tenseness and pumped up dramatics of which he was sometimes accused are not in evidence. Dynamic contrasts are not huge: few tremendous climaxes are built. Tempos are fairly ‘central’, neither over-driven or dragged out. Surprisingly, he is only one minute faster overall compared to Bruno Walter in his 1961 stereo performance [81:06], but there are significant differences in the timing of individual movements. Much of Walter’s apparent speed stems from his controversially fast reading of the finale (discussed below).

The Andante comodo first movement opens softly with a hesitant rhythmic motif (supposedly echoing Mahler’s irregular heartbeat) and soon moves to a three-note motif played on the harp that provides material for the rest of the movement. The playing here sounds slightly literal and could have been more mysterious if played with a little more flexibility and perhaps a touch softer. During the development, the trombones and the tuba declaim the ‘heartbeat motif’ (marked ‘with greatest force’) with some energy, but not, perhaps as forcefully as Walter in his 1938 Vienna recording or Leonard Bernstein in his 1979 live Berlin recording for DG (not to be confused with his 1985 DG recording in Amsterdam – review review). Solti and the LSO then deliver a convincing funeral march with the tympani taking up the harp’s three-note motif. Near the conclusion Mahler, borrowing an idea from the second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, included bird calls. These are delivered superbly by the LSO’s piccolo, flute, oboe and solo violin.

Arguably, Solti is least satisfying in the second movement, where he somewhat underplays the galumphing character of the Ländler, striving, perhaps, to avoid vulgarity. But this is a peasant dance and a spot of vulgarity is in order. Bruno Walter (and possibly others) loved to stamp his foot on the downbeat – and why not? The darkening of the mood as the dance is converted from a traditional one into a nasty one could have been underlined more. There are times throughout the symphony when one senses that Solti is not comfortable with the angry Mahler.

The third movement, the Rondo-Burleske, contains a mixture of dissonance with Baroque counterpoint: the result is a fierce uproar and you would expect to find Solti and his orchestra in their element which, to a large extent, they are. While a Burleske implies humour, the mood of the movement is mostly bitterness and anger, justly felt by the composer in view of the death of his elder daughter, his diagnosed fatal heart condition and his forced resignation from the Vienna Court Opera. The opening dissonant theme is played arrestingly by the trumpet, then follows violent contrapuntal music which parodies contemporary Viennese popular music. Solti’s handling here could have more consciously ‘sent the music up’. The slower, serene central section, is played simply and directly. Then there is a return to the violent music, which Solti ends emphatically and abruptly, as demanded by the score. Do he and the orchestra go beyond virtuosity and capture to the full the feelings motivating the music? Perhaps not.

The final movement, a long Adagio - without doubt a farewell to life - has a specific tempo marking which translates as “very slowly and held back”. Just how slow is ‘very slow’ is a matter where conductors (and critics) have differed widely. An American Record Guide reviewer accused Walter of ignoring Mahler’s tempo instructions in this movement and giving swift, “emotionally superficial” readings as a result. He delivered the movement in 21:04 in his 1961 Los Angeles stereo recording and dispatched it in just 18:10 in his Vienna version. These are probably the fastest timings on recordings. Still, “superficiality” is not what I hear from Walter and his approach seems valid in relation to his overall interpretation. Solti’s flowing tempos seem well-chosen, resulting in a performance lasting 22:56 which sits rather centrally between Walter’s 18:10 in Vienna and Bernstein’s 26:11 in Berlin.

Solti conducts the movement’s opening theme, which is strikingly similar to the hymn Abide with Me, with affecting simplicity. The direct quote from the middle part of the Rondo Burleske is likewise played straightforwardly, sounding beautiful but not particularly elegiac, as it can do in other hands. The coda contains another quote, this time from one of the Kindertotenlieder: The day is fine on yonder heights. Again, this is played directly and beautifully, without being drawn out, yet without conveying strong feelings of resignation or yearning which might suggest a tear-laden farewell to life.

Decca’s balances are close to ideal, with all sections of the orchestra present and in their correct proportions. Not so the sound quality. In its hey-day, the label typically offered a not unappealing ‘gutsy’ treble sound, resulting from the type of microphones used, and their placement and direction. This transfer presents a somewhat coarsened version of this effect which detracts from the virtues of the Kingsway Hall acoustic. There is no information as to the origin of this transfer, or whether it is the same one Decca used for its last reissue in 2011. A possible cause of the aural discomfort might be that the transfer is too many generations removed from the master tape.

There have been more than one hundred commercial recordings of this work. Rival versions include, of course, Solti’s later, 1983 Decca recording with the Chicago Orchestra. He was more expansive then in all movements except the Rondo-Burleske, taking over eighty-five minutes for the entire work. Yet expansion seemingly did not bring greater insight, with commentators complaining of emotional flatness and lack of mystery. As David Gutman has said, Bernstein in Berlin presented the work with a “vehemence and ardour” unmatched since Walter’s Vienna recording which had similar qualities, although often different in its details, including tempos. To me, Bernstein’s is the one stereo recording which captures the full score.

As I’ve suggested, the prime virtues of this Solti performance include simplicity and directness – not that these would have been easy to achieve. The impression it creates could be likened to a perfect diamond: beautiful in its crystalline precision but not warm, not a living, breathing, feeling thing. This recording will not disappoint those Solti enthusiasts who may not have heard it previously, but it falls short of the ultimate in Mahler Ninths because of its relative emotional coolness. Others may find it worth a listen at those times when the full Mahlerian emotions may be hard to contend with.

Rob W McKenzie

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey

 

 




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