Friday, 6 February 2009

Mahler channels Beethoven 9 via Järvi

Until very recently, it wasn’t unusual for conductors to “retouch” – not “revise” - existing pieces in performance. The logic was simple. Late 19th century instruments and orchestras could produce a much greater range of sound than might have been available in the past. If the retouched music worked, then the original composer’s aims might be achieved even if it wasn’t how he would have heard it. Before recordings, people heard only what was played in the concert hall, and audiences were not particularly aware of the originals. Historically-informed practice was irrelevant.

Mahler’s Retuschen are fairly well known, particularly of Bach where he employs an orchestral arsenal Bach may never have dreamed of. Mahler’s orchestration of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was meant to enhance its impact and underline its iconic status in music history.

We can hear echt Beethoven at any time. Since this was the first performance of a new edition of Mahler’s reorchestration, Neeme Järvi emphasized the Mahlerian textures, so we could absorb the wider range of colour. The deeper sonorities are impressive – Mahler adds a tuba, for example, so the contrast between light and darkness that runs like a stream through the symphony are heard in better focus. In the“Turkish” passages, the percussion unit placed well away from the main timpani, so its distinctive, alien nature is emphasized above the whole. Given Mahler’s predilection for marches this adds an extra perspective.

But the whole point of this symphony is that it carries connotations of revolution, freedom and international brotherhood, so it needs performances with fire and energy. Earlier this year, Riccardo Chailly led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in a performance of exceptional vitality that made the old warhorse spring to life again as if it were brand new. Järvi’s attention to detail respected the textures in the orchestration but underplayed the soaring architecture of the symphony which gives it such power. Too much reverence for perfect detail, less understanding for what really makes the symphony work. From what we know of Mahler as conductor - headstrong, vibrant - I suspect he'd have given it more kick.

Beethoven’s 9th is also a prototype of the song symphony which Mahler was to develop so beautifully. Surprisingly then, that the song elements didn’t get greater prominence as they play an important role throughout the symphony, even though the actual vocal parts don’t enter until the end. The soloists were fine, placed behind the orchestra. This is the sweet spot in the new RFH acoustic, where any singing in the front is drowned out. The choral singing though was a disappointment after the precise diction and delivery of the Leipzig choirs for Chailly.

This symphony was conceived on a grand scale, and Mahler faithfully extends the concept of music as spectacle. Volume is always stirring, and accordingly, reception was enthusiastic. Like many of the audiences in the past, many here were not specially committed to either Mahler or Beethoven, so could enjoy themselves quite happily.

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