This has been an exceptionally difficult set to write about. Those of you who have read my previous reviews of this cycle will know that I not only attended all the concerts which form the subject of these recordings but I have also been exposed to Lorin Maazel's Mahler since the early 1960s and that generally I have been extremely impressed both with the consistency of vision but also the maturing of the interpretations as Maazel advanced in years. There is the added depth and tension which is heavily emphasised by the slow, in some cases extremely slow, tempos which characterised his last years.
So why so difficult? Well the concerts had been not only very impressive but also in some cases incredibly moving. However some reviews of these accounts on CD have been negative, together with usual antagonism shown to Maazel. So how would these readings seem four years later and without the atmosphere and excitement of being in a concert hall emerging straight from a master conductor and a great orchestra?
The Seventh has always been a Maazel success story and indeed was a highlight of his set recorded in the 1970s with the Vienna Philharmonic. This Philharmonia performance is very similar in concept with, particularly memorable versions of both the ‘Nachtmusik’ movements. I have a problem with the bombastic Finale, which so often seems like an unnecessary vulgarity. Not so here. The strength and power seems totally appropriate as the culmination and crowns a wonderful account.
For the Eighth Symphony the Vienna Philharmonic recording seemed to me to be disappointingly uninvolved and this Philharmonia taping is generally superior and completely vindicated with the almost unbelievable beauty and intensity of the orchestral section which begins Part Two and which has never seemed more magical. Maazel’s legendary control serves this sprawling score exceptionally well. With very fine solo singing and a wonderful contribution from the choruses Maazel builds a superbly forceful and thrilling climax to bring the Symphony to its close.
The predominantly slow tempos really came to the fore in the Ninth. The first movement coming in at nearly 36 minutes will cause a few raised eyebrows, but listen carefully to the extraordinary commitment and tension Maazel builds as he starts what proves to be a uniquely long journey towards the sparsely orchestrated end of the last movement, an Adagio. On the road he tackles both middle movements with both some of the wit needed for the second (a Ländler) movement and the power and energy required for the third (‘Rondo-Burleske’) movement. I must mention the exceptional playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra, the strings and woodwinds unbearably intense for a total and overwhelming experience.
This is an interpretation that will heavily divide listeners, some finding it almost impossible to accept such speeds that. My reaction at the time was the exact reverse – with total wonder that Maazel could sustain this score in a way that seemed to transcend reality. At the end of the concert performance of the Ninth I felt totally drained and was moved to say that this seemed to be a public farewell to a much-loved Symphony. But would such a spacious account work as a recording? It does and is a tremendous experience.
These performances, indeed the whole cycle (can Signum please be persuaded to issue the magnificent Das Lied von der Erde?), would not take to being judged by listening only to snippets. The whole or nothing, and each recording is a magnificent addition to the Mahler discography. As before the discs are very well presented in three jewel-cases, each containing two CDs, inside an outer slipcase. The recorded sound is a true representation of the Royal Festival Hall as a venue and Signum’s annotation includes the text and translations for Symphony No.8.