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Mahler Symphony No. 9

Tony Duggan, Classical Music Web

With Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia on Telarc (3CD-80527) for the cost of one full-priced CD you get two containing the "live" performance and a third containing a fascinating seventy-six minute illustrated talk by Zander himself entitled "Conducting and Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony". Along with a long liner essay there's a single sheet containing a reproduction of the first two pages of the score, complete with the conductor's notations so you can follow the major part of his talk on how to conduct the piece, a plan of the orchestra, two "beat charts", engravings of Mahler conducting and a note from a small girl thanking Zander for his performances. As well as a conductor, Benjamin Zander is also a teacher. His work with the Boston Philharmonic gives evidence of his virtues in this role. He is also in demand in another direction, called in by organisations to put lead into corporate pencils, never failing to use music and experiences performing it as part of his creed. So, perhaps, it's the teacher in Zander that led to the unusual presentation.

In his essay Zander sees the first movement representing a dichotomy at the heart of the symphony. "There seems to be two kinds of music....gentle, harmonious, sublimely beautiful, and resolved; and music that is complex, dissonant, full of tension, and unresolved. And the structure of the movement seems to set these two kinds of music against each other." For Zander this dichotomy represents the duality in Mahler and the time in which he lived, looking back to the romantic, unified past and forward to the dissonant, fragmented future. There is much to be gained from seeing the work in these terms and Zander certainly manages to illustrate the two poles of this dichotomy in his performance of the first movement very well. But there are other performances which do it as well and which also recognise that any dichotomy is the sum of its poles and also the area between them and I don't feel Zander attends to the latter to such an extent as he could. The quieter passages between the more animated ones are interpreted extremely slowly and withdrawn to the extent that I think they're in danger of becoming detached from the whole, with less definition or focus, holding up the momentum and any feeling of "line" that is so remarkable with Barbirolli and Haitink, to name two. The impression is of "marking time" between crises. It's marginal, but enough to bother me rather. When it comes to the Scherzo Zander again appears in his material to understand perfectly what Mahler is aiming for but seems he either misunderstands what he means the conductor should do with this or finds such a step beyond him. Referring to Mahler's use of his favourite landler, Zander writes: "This dance is a grim parody of the dance. Mahler's indication at the beginning of the movement, "Etwas tappisch und sehr derb" (somewhat clumsy and very rough), shows that the true Landler is here stiffened and chained, deprived of its characteristic lilt - a counterpart of the first movement's dissonance and rhythmic complexity." That the Landler is changed here, there's absolutely no doubt so Zander is spot-on in his talk. But I don't feel the change effected is either what Zander says it is or quite what he delivers. I think what Mahler is doing was well described by Neville Cardus when he said that the Landler is "ravished and made with child" or by Leonard Bernstein who wrote of a "bitter re-imaging of simplicity, naiveté, the earth-pleasures we recall from adolescence." With Zander what we get is a little too precise and contained with little of the "clumsiness" and "roughness" Mahler asks for or the parody Zander himself seems to want. Never mind Bernstein's "re-imaging" or Cardus's "ravishing".

For Zander the most remarkable aspect of the Rondo Burlesque is its contrapuntal mastery and he's dead right to draw attention to this. But when he writes "at first it may sound utterly chaotic, but gradually we realise that it is a tour de force of controlled contrapuntal writing" I disagree and believe he may be elevating this aspect above others with the result that too much control is exercised where more abandon is what is demanded. If anything, any sense of chaos at the beginning should be added to until the whole movement is in danger of breaking up. But he certainly does achieve what he sets out in his essay. His need for control also seems behind the fact that he is marginally too slow, but that isn't the whole story. Klemperer is even slower and yet conveys a world of impending chaos. Bernstein knew what this music meant: "....a farewell to the world of action, the urban, the cosmopolitan life - the cocktail party, the marketplace, the raucous careers and careenings of success, of loud, hollow laughter." I would only add it's also the music of a world about to go smash. Listen to the Walter recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of 1938 (playing when the world was on the verge of going smash for a second time) and the manic, unhinged frenzy with which they tear into this movement not letting up until the end and making the blissful interlude in the centre even more moving. Zander almost spoils this latter passage a little for me by going too fast and then, almost as if he has realised what he has done, slowing up.

The last movement from Zander balances the long first movement very well, something that isn't always the case when the symphony's "top-heaviness" can be accentuated. So I applaud Zander for maintaining structural integrity throughout. His and his players' powers of concentration are very much one of the plusses one takes away from this account also. But when Zander writes of the last movement: "....the textures are rich and full, the counterpointastonishingly opulent" it's a pity to find the strings slightly spare in volume, though this could well be a fault of the recording and hall balance of which more in a moment. I'm also a bit worried by Zander encouraging the same emphatic lunges in the strings that, for me, disfigure the first movement a little and which I think have the effect of dissipating any opulence rather than aiding it, even though it does have the effect of linking the first and last movements in our minds very well. On this evidence, the Philharmonia cannot match the "saturation-quality" or nostalgic yearning of their counterparts in the old Vienna Philharmonic, even in a 1938 recording. Whether it's the gut strings, the old-world style of playing, or a trick of the sound balance, the sound of the old VPO riding every climax shows again what is missing in Zander's account of the same passages. Zander also writes: "....there are moments of extreme withdrawal - those bleak, passionless passages that Mahler marks to be played 'ohne Ausdruck' (without expression) and that are often scored for just a handful of instruments." Zander courageously takes Mahler at his word here and I admire him for that. The effect, as in the first movement, is to accentuate the divide between louder, animated passages and those of "extreme withdrawal" which are again so withdrawn they're almost in danger of detaching themselves. I just wonder if Zander is being too literal in interpreting what Mahler is asking. That when Mahler writes "without expression" he's writing in terms of what expression meant for him rather than what it means for us and an adjustment is needed. I find it hard to believe Mahler meant the closing pages to come over quite as remote as they do here to the extent that the thread becomes almost indistinct. Zander writes of the ending: "It has none of the nihilism and cold sense of futility which is found in so much contemporary art. On the contrary, there is a deep attachment to joy. Despair and knowledge of suffering are turned into a discovering of the meaning of life." Indeed they are. So I'm puzzled rather than it seems played as though the opposite were the case. Horenstein stretches the music on the rack here, especially in his "live" 1966 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. So does Bernstein with the Berlin Philharmonic also recorded "live". Though neither to quite the same extent as Zander. This becomes a major problem for me in these closing pages under Zander because they remind me more of the closing movement of Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony where a completely different effect is aimed at. Or maybe that's what Zander is aiming at. If so, another layer of the interpretative tradition has been added. In spite of my own preferences, it's good to be able to include a performance that tests Mahler's markings here to the limit.

In all, Zander's recording is a relative disappointment, especially in comparison with other recordings of this work and with his own excellent recording of the Sixth. The sound is problematic too. It seems oddly detached at times and is recorded at a lower level so needs to be played back high. Zander makes great play of dividing his first and second violins, as Mahler did, and is to be congratulated for that, as are the engineers for letting us hear the divide. But the strings sound a bit under-powered, though this may be the fault of the balance. In spite of my reservations, you will gather that, by including this recording here over some others, I rate it all the same. In spite of everything it has too many interesting points of discussion for it to be left out.


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