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Ionarts at Large: Mahler Ninth with the Munich Philharmonic

Peter Ruzicka, Picture courtesy Bayerische StaatszeitungThe Munich Philharmonic is better known for its Bruckner than its Mahler - Sergiu Celibidache and Günter Wand, the two conductors that shaped the recent history of the Munich Philharmonic most, rarely, if ever, touched the neurotic, restless music of Mahler and preferred the structure and spiritual conservatism of Bruckner. The current head of the "MPHIL", Christian Thielemann, too, is in the Bruckner-Strauss-Wagner camp that leaves Mahler more or less by the wayside.

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M9 - Levine, MPHIL

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M9 - Tilson Thomas, San Francisco

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M9 - Maderna, BBC SO

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M9 - Sinopoli, Philharmonia

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M9 - Gielen, SWR SO
James Levine, well into Strauss and Wagner as he is, was an exception in this line, conducting more Mahler than Bruckner. And it is with Levine that we have a recording of the Munich Philharmonic in Mahler: The Ninth [OEHMS records] - stretched to over 93 minutes (if it isn't the slowest Ninth in the catalog, it's the slowest I know) with the last movement alone lasting a near-absurd 32 minutes. (Boulez manages in 21 minutes without sounding rushed; Tilson Thomas's fabulous fourth movement takes some 28 minutes.)

Composer/Conductor Peter Ruzicka (*1948), artistic director of the Salzburg Festival between 2001 and 2006, programmed the Ninth with the MPHIL alongside his own "Memorial", a "Requiem without words for Giuseppe Sinopoli", his friend who died mid-Aida on April 20th, 2001. "Memorial" with its musical reference of G, E-flat, E, E, E-flat (G-s-e-e.S. in the German notation) has a whiff of amplified Ligeti, produces a wincing of strings, not unlike a breaking train coming to an arduous halt. Pools of rest erupt in moments of explosive frenzy of percussion and brass that come as quickly as they recede. Its aggressive, frantic tail of a conclusion marks the apex of "Memorial" before an irregular, strained, and finally dying heartbeat faints and fades away gently with the work. One need not have known that Sinopoli suffered a heart attack during that fatal Aida to discern the meaning of this very literal tribute. "Memorial" is an amorphous, atmospheric work that, with some imagination and good-will, could be considered ethereally beautiful... but not likely ever to arouse much more than polite applause from an audience expecting Mahler.

As it were, Ruzicka's Mahler was not much easier to comprehend. The music still had all its power to fascinate and delight, but it did so with three quarters confusion and one quarter pleasing. The opening was extremely calm and 'put down', perhaps even stilted. It was, not unusual for conductors that are also (modernist) composers (consider the fine recording of Bruno Maderna [BBC Legends], but also of Gielen [Hänssler] and Sinopoli [DG]), a performance that highlighted and separated individual voices. But the sum of the individual parts did not again make for a cohesive whole. Disorientation set in, which may be a fine experience if it forces you to pay attention to otherwise over-heard elements... but it doesn't do the symphony any favors in the long run. Odd tempo changes and abrupt ritardandi, strange balances in which the strings had to fight against the rest of the orchestra gave the second movement its momentum and an alienating character. For the second movement, its modern sounds and its sense of chaos, that was not devoid of appeal. An excellently playing battery of trombones and ever so beautiful bassoon contributions added where the consistently sub-par horn section detracted.

The third movement sounded downright cacophonic, brought vigor bordering shrillness, was short-breathed and restless, naturally hectic which resulted in it feeling hastened when it was likely taken slower than is usual. The fourth movement was played well enough and offered a harmonic whole that had, for better or worse, been absent before. Confident and never very tender, it cruised nearly to the end where, alas, the overarching line did not continue through the drop in energy in which the symphony exhausts itself. Fortunately even a few plodding bars cannot take away too much of the impression this movement has, at least on these ears.


Anonymous said...

As a point of interest, Bruno Walter's recording (live with the VPO in 1938) is 70 minutes 13 seconds. He must have been a veritable racehorse, even when compared with Boulez. His last movement comes in at eighteen minutes twenty seconds.

And the opening is so calm (and so piano) that I sometimes wonder if they started the tape rolling a minute too early, and caught the last few instruments warming up.

jfl said...

A recording that I've listened to several times and no sooner does it stop, I have forgotten about it. No doubt due to some deficiency of my own, I have so far been everything but enamored by Walter's Mahler, in spite of all (highly dubious, as it were) claims to authenticity Walter's Mahler might have.

But the relative speed of Walter would go to show that performances of romantic orchestral music have become increasingly slower over the years - a trend that might perhaps have its origins in those mystically magical performances of Kna's Wagner? At any rate, glory and gravitas have been associated with (or mistaken for) slowness, it seems... Bruckner, Mahler, and Wagner 'suffering' (sometimes to great effect) the most.

jfl said...

with new motivation i've gotten Walter's Sony recordings of 1,2,4,5,9 (I have 1 and 4 somewhere, but God knows what shelf they are sitting on...) and what I am hearing so far doth pleaseth me. More gently in moments of the 9th when others are particularly aggressive... Viennese... I'm glad to have (re)familiarized with these recordings.