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Mahler, who was born today: Two Record Reviews from the Archives

Mahler. Sometimes it's just a bit too much. But a post today is appropriate though, because today, 163 years ago, Mahler was born. Mahler recycled his ideas (and sometimes those of others) - and so will I, adapting a post (part of which ended up here) that was published on WETA's website on this day, 13 years ago, in order to rescure two short record reviews that would otherwise have been lost to the æther:

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Symphony No.1
Honeck / Pittsburgh SO
Exton SACD

Because we don’t have enough Mahler to satisfy our every taste and desires, Manfred Honeck has also started a cycle “if it is possible, in the next five, six years” with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. If the audiophile Exton label doesn’t get its distribution act together, it may not matter, since we can’t get a hold of the recordings… but if we do (and I’ve snagged a copy of the First, released in April; the Fourth will be out next, and the Third was recorded in June), we might find it’s much more than another layer of Mahler-overkill.Über-idiomatic and rambunctious, joyously self-celebratory, laugh-out-loud daring, hyper-romantic but without the (differently-appealing) heavy hand of Bernstein, it is one of the most notable Firsts to have appeared in a very long time. Perhaps that can be partly blamed on the old zither teacher of Honeck.

When Honeck was a kid, he was—very reluctantly, because it was deemed cruelly uncool even then—made to learn the zither. He had an old teacher; not technically gifted but of a generation that had the Austrian folk music and rhythms in their blood and able to pass it on. Recording Mahler now, Honeck said that now he knows why he has reason to be thankful for those lessons: because he took to Mahler’s Ländler-rhythms like fish to water. “That’s something you can’t learn”, he suggests, “but rather absorb and hope to be able to pass on. In any case, that’s what I’ve tried with these recordings and so far I am very happy with the result.” The fact that he plays the unique rhythms and snaps up wherever they appear, contributes a good deal to the zest and color of this recording.


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Symphony No.9
Norrington / Stuttgart WRSO

Yet another Mahler cycle [Ed.: Correction: just a recording; no cycle planned as of yet] from Roger Norrington who finds himself delighting in a happily controversial golden fall of his career. With the ideology and methods of the original instrument and historical performance practice movement, he’s been inching his repertory ever further up, suggesting that the modern tradition of performing romantic music is in fact much more modern than the music itself and that in just a few decades the newfound habits—especially that of permanent orchestral vibrato—have clogged out memory of how the composers themselves still had (and expected) their music (to be) played. When he forces this theory down an unwilling or unable orchestra’s collective throat—regardless of the merits of his theories—the results have been frankly awful. I shudder to remember the Bruckner Fourth he made the NSO perform a few years back. But he has his own modern orchestra lab now—the excellent SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and they have wisely learned to go along with Norrington’s shtick. Not just hesitatingly, by the sound of it, but with considerable enthusiasm and even more dexterity. The results are performances of staple repertoire played in ways you haven’t likely heard before (Norrington goes further, with more teeth, than Herreweghe) which has in turn put the Stuttgarters squarely on the map of record collectors and concert-goers—both as object of derision, but more and more so of admiration.

Norrington calls the vibrato-free playing of his strings the ‘pure tone’ and suggests that the last time we’ve heard an orchestra play with such a pure tone was the pre-World War II Vienna Philharmonic, still led by concertmaster Arnold Rosé (Mahler’s friend and brother in law), and conducted in such a ‘pure’ Mahler 9th by Bruno Walter’s famous EMI recording (which I happen to think is woefully overrated). So Norrington gives the great diffuser and comfort-smudger that permanent vibrato admittedly is, the boot, and has his modern instrument violinists, violists, cellists, and double basses hit the notes and play them clean without—literally—the wiggle room that vibrato provides, intonation-wise. Since his orchestra knows how to do that now, the sound isn’t off; instead it’s more direct, seeming a little more strident at first, a little sharper, but certainly also more detailed and clearer. Or, I suppose, ‘purer’.

I’ve only now heard the Ninth Symphony of Mahler with Norrington (aFirst, Second, Fourth, and Fifth are also available), and while I wouldn’t say that loving this performance means being sold on his theory to the exclusion of the various other current ways of performing Mahler, I, well… I love it. There is a zany bite and yet a plain simplicity to the music that is very refreshing, gripping, and exciting. Although Norrington certainly doesn’t stretch the heavenly closing Adagio to its limits at 19’24’’ (that’s two minutes faster than Boulez), he draws out the ethereal quality just right. He also manages to keep the tension in those last minutes when the energy of the symphony drops to what can end up a hesitant whimper rather than carefully stringed repose evaporating into a confident, gentle goodbye.