Mahler
Symphony No.9

London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel
Lorin Maazel’s Mahler symphony cycle on Sony has the dubious distinction of being one of the slowest – and dreariest – on disc. I approached this concert in the hope that, live, Maazel would manage to bring the music to life in a way that he seemed curiously unable to do in the studio. I also had in the back of my mind a performance, by the same orchestra and conductor in the same venue, of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, some years ago, where the overall impression was that of dullness – a pretty tough feat in that work.
Lorin Maazel is undoubtedly a gifted musician and a superb technician on the podium. The orchestra played its collective socks off for him and responded to every flick of the maestro’s fingers and twitch of the baton and yet, for this listener at least, the music stubbornly failed to ’come alive’. To be sure, the details of the music were well attended to, instrumental colourings were vivid and solo playing immaculate, and yet the whole remained solidly earthbound – one or two moments apart.
The basic pulse of the first movement was, frankly, too slow. The marking is ’Andante comodo’, which suggests some sense of forward movement. Alas, too often the music felt weighed down as if unwilling or unable to move on. Phrases did not always lead naturally on to the next. Climaxes were powerful, although the tone of full brass was often quite coarse. Maazel lingered lovingly – perhaps too much so – in the gentler, more reflective passages, and the woodwind soloists, an especially oily and sinister bass clarinet, were superb.
The second movement needs a lighter touch than it received in Maazel’s hands. Once again, a slightly more flowing tempo wouldn’t have come amiss. The weight of the full string tone was impressive but the whole effect was too heavy. There should be a rather ’cheeky’ character to this music to provide contrast with the more serious arguments of the surrounding movements.
The savagery of the third movement came off best in this performance, with Maazel’s ’heavy’ approach paying off and reminding us, more than once, of how influenced Shostakovich was by Mahler’s orchestration. The main tempo was, again, rather steadier than usual, but Maazel whipped up a storm in the final presto with breathtaking results.
The strings at the start of the final, regretful ’Adagio’ were affecting, and there was a real sense of heartache and regret – as there should be in this painfully sad music. But there was little sense of building towards climaxes – they suddenly happened. In the final pages, however, Maazel and his players were impressive and that strange, otherworldly final page for strings alone was disquieting rather than comforting.
Overall, I felt that this was a presentation rather than an interpretation of the symphony. Inner parts were displayed clearly, tricky passages neatly turned, but the whole performance felt strangely uninvolving in a way which is difficult to describe but which is a curious feature of Lorin Maazel’s conducting.
  • Lorin Maazel conducts the LSO in Mahler’s Third Symphony on Sunday, 23 June, at 7.30
  • Box Office: 020 7638 8891 www.barbican.org.uk

 

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