MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D Major – Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI/ Sir John Barbirolli – IDIS

by | Dec 22, 2010 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D Major – Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI/ Sir John Barbirolli

IDIS 6599, 74:21 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:

The concert from Turin, Italy 25 November 1960 features Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) performing the music of Gustav Mahler, whom the debonair British conductor discovered relatively late in his career, but whom he then embraced with the unbridled devotion of any recent convert. Here, Mahler’s last completed numbered symphony (1909), resonates with the ambiguities of life and death, the opening rhythm taken from both the Abschied of The Song of the Earth and the composer’s own cardiac arrthymia. Mahler as a conductor had been impressed with Tchaikovsky’s structural arrangement for the Pathetique Symphony–placing slow movements at the outer ends of the score–and Mahler’s own graduation recital had included another musical influence, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, the so-called “Les Adieux” whose F-sharp – E interval infiltrates Mahler’s own thinking.

Barbirolli infuses his Italian ensemble with solemn pageantry and wistful longing, the funereal first movement’s often thundering with backward glances at love, nature, and mortal thoughts. As pantheistic as it is morbid, the music exploits competing key centers for primacy, with horns, harp, and solo flute meandering into the mountains or balmy woods for consolation from evil dreams. What “dark night of the soul” Mahler passes through, the eventual dawn rises, even in spite of the individual’s heartbreak. Like another famed Mahler acolyte, Jascha Horenstein, Barbirolli takes the second movement Laendler at a measured tempo to emphasize the three distinct rhythms that permeate its fierce design. Waltz and rustic dance compete, certainly, but so too does a kind of totentanz that cynically insinuates itself a key moments. Barbirolli slows the progression down to re-introduce the “failed-heart” motion from the opening movement, now juxtaposed against ironic jabs from the woodwinds and the inexorable ticking of the clock. The music yearns for the same exalted vision of Nature Mahler had in the Fourth Symphony, but this ungainly, even perverted hallucination will not abide Original Innocence.

Mahler marks his third movement “Sehr Trotzig,” (very stubborn), but the RAI ensemble seems rather hot to trot to the emotional stampede that often hurtles itself forward. We have to admire the militant and cynical menace that travels through this landscape from which the nightmare painter Bosch may have cultivated his visions. Barbirolli’s control over the extended counterpoint proves masterly, the voices distinct, raucous, jarring, rabidly opposed to its own psychic dissolution. The central section asks for “music from far away,” announced by bitonal harmonies from brass, percussion, and woodwinds. The painting by Friedrich, “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Mists,” seems an apt representation of this high-flung music, poised at the edge of a personal abyss. Absurdity and sublimity vie for dominance in the protagonist’s consciousness, and always there sings Mahler’s passion for the mystery of life.

With a wonderful serenity of deep spirit opens the last movement from Barbirolli. The relative restraint in these first pages pays off later, when the same materials become frenetic, even hysterical. The sonic patina–the power of the RAI strings–comes thoroughly to the fore, the bass fiddles alternately grumbling and sighing with a passionate resignation. The soli from the winds and the solo violin invoke a prophet lonely in the wasteland. An affective stoicism pervades this reading, fearless in the face of catastrophe, eager to seize the ephemeral joys that flit like dancing colors from a cruelly elusive dream. Oboe and strings, added flute, low bassoon, French horn, all contribute to a mystique that glorifies and taunts, at once. The Rueckert song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” might provide the epithet for this world-weary music, whose occasional burst of irrepressible passion attests to Mahler’s fascination with Faust  as the eternal seeker for metaphysical consolation. Old-fashioned portamento still finds relevance in Barbirolli’s arsenal of expression, weeping and wailing in a bitter urgency of resistance. The tempo winds down, slower ever slower, until a kind of emotional entropy queries, like Brahms in his Ein deutsches Requiem, “Death, where is thy sting?”

— Gary Lemco


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