BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded on 31 March 1971 in the Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: August 2006
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 79 minutes
Better known as a composer, Bruno Maderna’s representation on disc (except for numerous unofficial releases of him leading a wide repertoire) is virtually exclusively as a conductor of his own works, but this performance of Mahler’s final completed symphony is something of a revelation and the music unquestionably benefits from a composer’s insights.
It should be said that this is not a comfortable traversal of Mahler’s soundworld; unlike many recent recordings that seem to focus on glossy textures, Maderna’s view is altogether darker-hued. At times he makes the music sound downright dangerous and uncomfortable. The opening of the symphony is taken at an extremely leisurely pace, lingering lovingly over that falling string phrase which permeates the work as a whole, and the horn solo (superb throughout) providing expressive counterpoint.
This approach may not be to everyone’s taste; indeed, when this opening material returns later, it is noticeably faster. Mahler’s scores are notoriously peppered with instructions for the conductor relating to tempo, expression, dynamics, etc. – Maderna is not reticent to add a few more of his own. But somehow the performance avoids sounding self-indulgent, each decision having evidently been judiciously considered and executed with thought and care.
Climaxes of this passionate movement are certainly powerful – though not overwhelmingly so – and seem to emerge organically and naturally from what has gone before. Sudden outbursts, therefore, are all the more startling. In many places, Maderna – aided by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on top form – illuminates details of instrumental contributions that do not always register, and dynamics are most scrupulously observed. I don’t know how much rehearsal time was allotted, but the playing is consistently assured and, in 1971, I’m not at all sure that Mahler would have been a regular feature of the BBCSO’s repertoire. The close of this lengthy movement (just short of half-an-hour in this performance) is most poignantly and touchingly realised.
The second movement (a Ländler in all but name, though that word occurs in the tempo indication) is fleeter-footed than is sometimes the case, and pointed accents and articulation emphasise its slightly grotesque quality; there’s a wonderfully burly tuba about three minutes’ in. Once again, Maderna makes us aware of the strangeness of Mahler’s writing. Nothing is smoothed over and whilst the ‘dance’ feel is maintained, one gets the sense that something decidedly sinister is lurking somewhere nearby.
Bitterness breaks out in the third movement Rondo-Burleske, with agitated short phrases snapping at the heels. Often taken at a reckless speed, when details cannot register properly, Maderna notes the marking ‘Allegro assai’ – i.e. not too fast, and the ‘trotzig’ (defiant) indication is duly taken into account. I don’t think I’ve heard a more heartrending realisation of the short, slower section directed to be played ‘with great sentiment’. Here it is overwhelmingly sad. In this movement, the woodwinds distinguish themselves both in solos and collectively – there is a disconcerting downward glissando for oboe and flute which I don’t recall hearing so distinctly before, though it is clearly marked in the score. The coda is all the more impressive for not being rushed off its feet.
The main theme of the finale is taken more like an ‘andante’ than the specified Molto adagio, and some will miss the heart-on-sleeve slowness which some conductors adopt. I found it rather refreshing – Maderna emphasises the symphonic structure rather then overburdening the music with an extra layer of angst.
It is this sense of architecture which is so impressive throughout this performance; rather than sprawling or lurching from one moment to the next, Mahler’s design acquires a logic which it (and he) is not always given credit for. The strings – who bear the burden in this last movement – are extremely impressive and, overall, the orchestra’s response is committed and confident. Clarinettist Colin Bradbury is quoted as saying that Maderna’s “technique was pretty wild and improvisatory”. One would never guess that from this fine performance.
The sound is perfectly agreeable, with a natural balance. Occasionally an instrument obtrudes (this seems to affect the horns the most) – and there is some audience coughing (especially notable in the quiet closing pages) – but nothing really detracts from this intense reading which should be an urgent acquisition for all Mahlerians. Hopefully there might be some other Maderna-led performances in the BBC’s archives?