Through much of his musical life, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was known primarily as one of the world's finest conductors. Composing, his real passion, was left to tranquil lakeside summers in Austria, while his New York Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera were on hiatus. He composed mainly in symphonic form, using vast musical canvasses to project his musical ideas. The grandeur and scope of his nine symphonies are a testament to late-Romantic style.
During Mahler's life, the great influence of Wagner hung in the compositional air of continental Europe like an enveloping blanket. Mahler snuggled up comfortably, while others, like his great friend Arnold Schoenberg, crawled out from under and steered an opposite musical course. Although a great admirer of Schoenberg's music, Mahler stayed within the comfortable influence of chromaticism, and displayed the technique for all it was worth. Eventually, Schoenberg's dodecaphonism polarized the musical establishment, and Mahler's music found favour with an ever-growing and sophisticated audience.
Gustav Mahler's output is, arguably, a magnificent legacy to symphonic form. And, like most great composers, his music grew in stature with his deepening, and often tragic, life experiences. In his Ninth Symphony, we have a wealth of Mahler's experience to observe. It is all here in kaleidoscopic colour - the tragic death of his young daughter, the rejection of his Jewish faith, his wife's infidelities, his battles with the musical establishment of Vienna, and culminating with his ever-worsening health. Tragedy, despair and cynicism have rarely been personified so movingly in music. Sadly, the composer never heard a performance of his deepest and greatest symphony.
The Ninth Symphony is a very difficult work and requires a huge orchestra. Thus, it is beyond many orchestra's grasp, both technically and financially. What a truly pleasant surprise then to hear yet another regional American orchestra climbing up into the spotlight of international standards. To a short list of outstanding performances, we must add a wonderful new recording by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by their Musical Director, Jesús López-Cobos.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra sound like a full-bodied group, and boast some real virtuosos in their midst. All sections play their difficult parts in tune and are uniform in attack. The orchestra is fortunate to have a wonderful horn section and a fine solo trumpet - he is, at times, evocative and dramatic. The strings are rich in tone, the timpanist is accurate and very powerful, and the clarinets are resonant. All departments combine to produce wonderful ensemble - they follow their inspired leader with both hair-raising accuracy and finesse. In comparison to the highest musical and technical standards, this is a very fine achievement.
I had found Jesús López-Cobos' recent efforts in Romantic grandiloquence journeyman at best, therefore, it came as a pleasant surprise to experience a well-thought out and emotional interpretation. Subtlety and power are juxtaposed most effectively, magnifying the excellence of the conductor's vision and the virtuosity of his mid-west band. Musically, Jesús López-Cobos delivers the goods in a big way. A very big way. The soundscape he provides Mahler is huge - the orchestra members dig, scrape and gouge for all they are worth, and the results are spectacular.
Even though the outer movements of the Ninth Symphony are the most difficult to execute, both are given very fine readings. The first movement, Andante Comodo, is surely one of Mahler's most exquisite utterances. Interpretively, the music is allowed to unfold naturally, with the opening theme presented quite simply. But, wait! Throughout the long movement, the harmonic language becomes more and more complex, as Mahler layers his emotional spheres upon an unsuspecting listener. Huge climaxes and melodic lines of searing intensity are the result. And wow, what a trip it is!
For me, the two middle movements are central to the performance's success. The second movement, Ländler, is suitably dance-like. This movement sounds easier to play than the others, but, in reality, is a great test for conductor and orchestra. The score suggests some severe tempo changes that are difficult on both the players' musicianship and the conductor's technique. Here, both camps shine superbly. In fact, I have never heard it better. The third movement, titled Rondo-Burleske, looks back stylistically at the banality of Mahler's initial symphonic efforts. It races along at breakneck speed, demanding the utmost virtuosity from all participants. The unique Rondo form - ABACABA - is portrayed effectively, with the tranquil section C played exquisitely.
Mahler's last statement finds him at his most eloquent. The great Adagio is played wonderfully, with the heart-on-sleeve stylists, thankfully, not being emulated. The movement is allowed to speak for itself in dramatic style. The quiet solos are played reverently and the apotheosis is resplendent. Here, the horns give a musical lesson in section playing at its finest. The deathly-quiet coda is as advertised - but without any type of moribund playing. Mahler's evocation of death is offered to the listener in a most dignified manner.
Engineered by Thomas Knab, the new Telarc gets it right. You know what I mean - the feeling of exactitude and comfort one experiences when instrumental timbres and hall ambiance are just so. As such, the listener just exists with the music. Although surrounded in Telarc's usual technogarb, the recording's digital lineage highlights effectively what the format has to offer. The imaging is pinpoint, the bass is incredibly accurate and deep - Telarc's requisite bass drum is captured beautifully throughout.
Recorded in Cincinnati's Music Hall, Telarc used a surround sound system called Spatializer®. On a fine two channel system, I found the recording had great ambiance, portraying a very pleasing depth-of-field. The Spatializer® technology is said to enhance the sound further when listening via Dolby Pro-Logic® or Dolby Surround®.
The Cincinnati recording shines like a bright light, but, a comparative performance shines just as brightly - Herbert von Karajan's justly famous performance from the 1982 Berlin Festival (DGG 410 726-2). On a musical plane, the great conductor's live traversal with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra still astonishes me. Herbert von Karajan embodies the work with all the emotion a listener could ask for. As well as their enviable power, the Berlin players provide a stillness in the Adagio's peroration that lesser orchestras cannot deliver. It is a very special performance - special enough to be released by DGG just two years after Karajan's amazingly good studio recording (DGG 439 678-2)!
The differences in the recording quality are great. The Telarc gets it right, where, in comparison, the DGG is lightweight - no contest really. Thankfully, the archetypal and dreaded DGG spotlighting is not in evidence. Happily, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's performance need not fear comparison. Just to be mentioned in the same league as the Berlin performance is justification to own both the recordings.
If you seek deep emotional experiences in your music, I urge you to try Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The music threatens, taunts and intimidates, yet soothes and finally absolves. You need look no further than the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's bold and beautiful achievement. If you already own one or more recordings of the symphony, audition the new Telarc. It enhances the greatest of performances magnificently, and offers great insight into the life and soul of Gustav Mahler. You won't be disappointed.
Copyright©Anthony Kershaw, 1997