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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major [54:02]
Symphony No. 3 in D minor [93:54]
Helen Watts (contralto)
Ambrosian Chorus, Boys from Wandsworth School
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. 1964 (No. 1), 1968 (No. 3), Kingsway Hall, London
Booklet notes in English
ELOQUENCE 4827177 [74:43 + 73:23]

There’s a deal of history that adds meaning and context to this Eloquence reissue of Mahler’s First and Third Symphonies, conducted by the then un-knighted Georg Solti. These are part of his complete analogue Mahler cycle, which was an international affair, made with the principal orchestras of London (Nos. 1-3 and 9), Amsterdam (No. 4), and Chicago (Nos. 5-8). The Ninth has also been reissued by Eloquence on a complementary issue (4827163). The London and Amsterdam recordings were later remade in Chicago during the digital era.

Solti was a conductor renowned for the electricity of his opera and concert performances, but it is said he believed much of that was natural frisson, and for studio recordings an even higher voltage was needed for the same level of engagement. True or not, he also became renowned, notorious even, for a discography abounding with performances, largely of standard repertoire, which divided listeners and critics alike between those who considered them incisive, dynamic and exciting, and those who found them superficial, over-driven and charmless. Upping the octane rating was the Decca ffss sound given to Solti, especially in that heady first decade of stereo. It’s probably not drawing the longest bow to suggest that those most drawn to the Solti way were the relative newcomers, but if that meant a wider and particularly younger audience for classical music, there was no harm in that. Indeed, he was not only a key player in the Wagner resurgence of the early 1960s, but he was arguably also central to the growth of interest in Mahler’s music, even if for many he wasn’t its finest exponent.

On Mahler himself, Solti confessed to being a late convert. For years, as he told High Fidelity magazine in January 1967, “Mahler bored me. He came to me, or I came to him, eight or nine years ago. Up to then his symphonies were all pieces and bits. Now I see their form. I love them. It is not enough to like music. You must love. And love means change.”

Not so, however, for legendary Decca producer John Culshaw, who oversaw this recording of the First Symphony. In Putting the Record Straight (Secker & Warburg, 1981), he declared a strong aversion to Mahler's music, writing that it made him feel sick: "not metaphorically but physically sick. I find his strainings and heavings, juxtaposed with what always sounds (to me) like faux-naif music of the most calculated type, downright repulsive, and there seems to be nothing I can do about it other than admit the fact.” This had a direct bearing on the present recording, as he continued: “Solti seemed to think he could convince me otherwise, and so I embarked with him on the First Symphony. By the end of the editing I knew I could take no more, and had to tell him so.” Fortunately, according to Culshaw, he had on hand David Harvey, who was new to Decca and got on well with Solti, as well as having no such antipathy to Mahler. Harvey then took over responsibility for the rest of the analogue cycle.

But was ‘fortunate’ for John Culshaw a good omen for what followed?

The historical record shows that Solti’s 1964 take on the First Symphony was probably, and certainly most consistently, the best regarded recording of his whole cycle, and for some still a top pick for the work. It begs the question that, knowing some considerable lack of sympathy in the control room, was Solti this time playing to a different audience? A live audience of one, to be precise. And if that were the case, did this modify Solti’s approach, and especially his reputed tendency to super-charge recorded performances?

At the time, Solti’s competition centred largely around the mono recordings of Jascha Horenstein on Vox, Rafael Kubelik on Decca, and Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic on Columbia, as well as, in stereo, the later Walter recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and the unlikely but respectable account by Sir Adrian Boult on Everest. (Horenstein and Kubelik later did their own stereo recordings.) There was clearly space in the market for a ‘hot’ new version.

In the London Symphony Orchestra, Solti certainly had the right vehicle for his initial Mahler ambitions. On listening again to the First, one couldn’t cavil at the LSO’s playing - superb brass, characterful woodwinds, and a ripe body of string tone that spans the lush, to the hushed, to the bitingly urgent. The first movement’s ‘Nature’s awakening’ opening, leading to the exposition proper and first climax, almost defines the Solti divide: is he too literal and calculated, or does he provide a steady, masterly hand in subtly calibrating the tension? I tend to the latter, but I can’t exclude the vivid Decca sound in perhaps leading others to see the more facile side. Only the second movement gets the full Solti lash, with next to no relaxation for the trio. In the third movement, his precision and purposefulness may suggest the Kletzmer and Wayfarer episodes have been undercharacterised or glossed over, but then there is real poignancy in his introduction of the Frère Jacques theme. The finale undoubtedly blazes away, which may have just been the tonic for its time. The lyrical second subject seems almost an inconvenience in the charge to the finish. In his survey on this site of Mahler’s First, Tony Duggan sees Solti’s finale as “heavy-handed”, suggesting he takes a “Wagnerian approach”. If indeed Solti was trying to win John Culshaw over to Mahler, and given their runaway success in recording Wagner’s Ring, that seems a reasonable proposition!

Almost as a giveaway, the Eloquence liner notes have a glowing opinion piece on Solti’s performance of the First by music critic Ivan March, while the Third gets a general essay from musicologist and prominent Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke. It’s unlikely that March, a co-author of the Penguin Guide, would be so fulsome about the Third when the 1984 Guide remarked: “Solti’s LSO set is a disappointing reading, with not even the merit of good discipline. To compare these same players under Solti and under Horenstein is most illuminating, particularly in the finale, where for Solti there is no half tone”, and elsewhere adding “brassy and extrovert” to its distaste for Solti’s finale.

Solti’s LSO Third, with David Harvey as producer, has never had many friends, it appears, and my own impressions of it when first reissued on CD were that it was crude and shallow, relishing the bombastic while skating over the subtleties. The Penguin Guide’s reference to Horenstein’s account is apt not only for it being just two years after Solti’s and also with the LSO (and the same choirs, incidentally), but its soundscape is also heavily biased towards the back of the orchestra. There is a difference though – Decca’s balance is courtesy of the conductor, while Unicorn’s for Horenstein comes compliments of the sound engineer - a choir-stall balance, the LSO’s strings not only sounding under-nourished, but without any real sense of a body corporate. That said, Horenstein’s reading is several shades of nuance finer, if you’re inclined to see the whole arc of the symphony as Mahler’s programmatic vision of ascending steps to enlightenment, treating the four middle movements not merely as interludes between the pillars of emotional weight seemingly formed by the two outer movements. Solti’s ladder of ascent, if anything, is laid flat or slightly sagging in the middle (which, I hasten to add, is not to diminish the fine contributions of Helen Watts and the choristers). In that sense, Solti is of a kind with fellow prominent Mahlerian Bernard Haitink, who I believe is very much of the “playing the music as it’s written on the page” school of conducting. And indeed as Deryck Cooke points out, Mahler eventually discarded his program, leaving the music to speak for itself.

Feelings can mellow over time, and I now confess I’m less offended by Solti’s 1968 Third and see it as just another view. I also make allowance for the performing history of the work, and that later views have become more acceptable and ‘normal’, but that shouldn’t necessarily diminish earlier conceptions. Solti’s Chicago remake of the Third was most characteristically different in his vision and handling of the finale, and while his earlier finale is again more reminiscent of Wagner or Hollywood – ET’s rehabilitation and flight home, perhaps – it is still an uplifting experience, and if it inspires the listener to explore other ways this great symphony can be interpreted, that’s all to the good. As a forerunner to the earlier Solti, I played the finale of Leonard Bernstein’s still well regarded 1961 NYPO account, and admit that I found Solti’s directness and steady pulse more welcome. Lenny as ever was laying it on a bit thick – the Mahlerian “strainings and heavings” that so nauseated John Culshaw were much in evidence. The performance that moves me most, by the way, is Claudio Abbado’s live 2007 Lucerne Festival account on Euroarts, which is also apparent from the tear-stained faces of the audience.

The recordings have vintage 1960s Kingsway Hall sound, the bass drum’s lowest rumblings attenuated I suspect by Decca’s proprietary filter. Eloquence unfortunately don’t provide the dates of the digital transfers, just the name of the remastering engineer. I compared the new releases with existing copies I have of the First and Third, from 1996 and 1991 respectively, and could detect no obvious differences. I have commented elsewhere on the somewhat uningratiating Decca string tone from this period, relating it mostly to the microphone choices at the time. However, the tapes used for transfers are also critical, as stridency tends to increase in copy masters. I would hope that original masters have been used for these transfers, but there’s some pronounced edginess to the sound, particularly in the First Symphony, which gives me doubt.

Some listeners may also be concerned about the side break placing the finale of the Third Symphony at the beginning of the second disc, potentially breaking concentration. Looking at the timings, there’s probably no other way of doing it, as say putting the first movement of the Third Symphony at the end of the First Symphony would make for an 87 minute CD – the record, as I understand it, stands at 86:30, and older CD players likely wouldn’t cope. I should also report a printing error on the second CD which indicates the ‘beginning’ of the Third Symphony instead of the ‘conclusion’. Curiously, the booklet and back insert number the tracks sequentially from 1-10 across both CDs, so that CD2 contains tracks 6-10, which of course your player won’t recognise. This is unconventional, and I don’t believe I’ve seen it before, including some other Eloquence 2-CD sets I checked.

There’s something about reviewing Mahler symphonies that induces verbiage of commensurate length, not to mention mixed feelings and vacillating opinions. For all that this Eloquence set is a budget release, it deserves careful appraisal because it re-introduces two Mahler recordings of the 1960s that at the time elicited extreme views, much as they would today, representing perhaps the best and worst of Georg Solti’s early Mahler. It seems to me the 20th century narrative of Mahler performance and recording is one of the great episodes of modern musical history, embracing the totality of life as much as the works themselves do. It’s too easy to be fashionable and dismiss Solti’s achievement as dated, but I found this recap a rewarding and somewhat re-orienting experience. Even if Solti’s recordings are not among my favourites for either symphony, I now find I warm to his Third more and perhaps his First less, but the overall conclusion is that they merit a permanent place in the Mahler discography. The First remains an estimable account by any measure, and the Third, which hitherto I would have regarded for die-hard Solti fans only, is well worth a second hearing.

Des Hutchinson



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