Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Saturday, October 01, 2011
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Nearly at journey’s end for the Philharmonia Orchestra and Lorin Maazel in their Mahler symphony cycle, and in some respects this amazing account of the Ninth (Mahler’s last fully-completed work) may well be considered the perfect way to end; it isn’t though for the vast vocal, choral and orchestral Eighth is still to come. It may be that when Signum issues this Ninth – as it must, and surely unedited, such was the quality of the playing – that a cold light of day at-home audition will draw a different reaction. However, while this concert performance was taking place, and being a part of it as a member of the audience, it seemed not only astonishing in terms of Maazel’s magisterial control and the Philharmonia’s honed and committed response but interpretatively it also redefined the meaningful possibilities of the music.
Yes, one can quibble the fixed tempos, which could be said to suppress Mahler’s supposed neurosis – no Bernstein elasticity here – but only when the timings of this huge performance were registered; nearly 100 minutes, the first movement running (running!) to an unprecedented 36 of them. But, that opening Andante comodo was convincing in its death-haunted breadth, the poised and concentrated playing finding a spiritual depth (and bleakness) to the music that needed this amount of space for all its potential to register. (Shades of Celibidache’s musical philosophy, save he didn’t conduct Mahler, except Kindertotenlieder.) Maazel has always been generous with this opening movement, usually taking a couple of minutes past half-an-hour but has now found a Klemperer-like stoicism within further distension, an unflinching approach that absorbed and illuminated. The dynamic range was wide, the quietest placings sucked you further in, and although one could report that the trombones were too loud, on the night their power and edge convinced.
If the tempo-relationships of the Ländler second movement may not have necessarily correlated, and it’s possible for this music to be wittier, then the on-purpose ‘peasant’-like roughness seemed appropriate, Maazel finding a stomping and contrasting vitality and with it a wrestling of emotions. And ‘if’ – such qualification not as black-and-white as Maazel’s total certainty of what he was doing – the third-movement Rondo-Burleske was – in basic terms – not fast enough, it was suitably dogged and mechanical and with faraway beauty come the ‘trio’. It belonged to the performance as a whole.
The concluding Adagio was as strong-willed on Maazel’s part (exactly the Sehr langsam that Mahler marks) as the first movement had been – yet always en rapport with Mahler’s vision. This was an eloquent and intense leave-taking (not that Mahler, his Tenth Symphony being drafted, was necessarily being valedictory), the sense of Last Rites palpable, the final climax transcendent, and the ensuing dissipation and fade to nothing so elegantly conducted and so sensitively played. We were left in significant silence.
But it’s not about statistics or any suggested contradictions of interpretation against the very detailed notated score, nor about erasing the malaises and fallibilities that had sometimes featured just two nights earlier. It’s about what happened and what it meant. What happened was that Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia Orchestra collaborated on something musically extensive and exhaustive through conducting prowess and outstanding corporate and solo playing. What it meant – well, take any one of the 2,000 people in the Royal Festival Hall on this evening and you may get as many different reactions. Following what was quite an experience, the word “extraordinary” passed my lips quite often.