MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D Major – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Bruno Walter – Pristine Audio 389 AS, 71:00 [avail. in various formats at www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Recorded 15-16 January 1938 with the Vienna Philharmonic directed by Bruno Walter (1876-1962), this reading of the score of the Ninth Symphony (1909) – Walter’s last pre-war performance before he fled from the Anschluss – contains some mighty music-making of an incandescent order. The performance has been enshrined by record labels, especially EMI, for years. Walter had led the initial 1912 performance of the Symphony; and the political situation of 1938, especially keen to those surviving musicians who had played for and with the composer, seemed to demand a valedictory statement at every measure. If the music depicted Mahler’s own imminent demise, so this performance predicts a grim fate for Europe and its ‘grand illusion’ that civilization had established. The bitter counterpoints and convulsions of the fugal Rondo-Burleske have rarely achieved the same terrors, rife with intimations of mortality. That such existential disorder finds its mirror in a fugue – among the most organized of musical procedures – must be the ultimate of Mahler’s ironies! This movement, juxtaposed against the relative innocence of huge Laendler movement – with its wistful urgings of rustic simplicity ravaged by dire presages of disaster – proves wrenching, even in spite of the occasional lapses in ensemble that a live performance can endure.
Restoration engineer Andrew Rose has subjected the original shellacs of this volcanic reading to his XR digital process, liberating even more of the potency of this historic interpretation. With added ambient stereo sound that does not impose a too-often blatant artificiality upon the sound, the effect has proved wholesome and viscerally moving. Mahler had been impressed with Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, especially its placement of a powerful Adagio as a concluding movement. Perhaps the long elegiac Adagio of Mahler sheds the false hopes presented in movements two and three, the extremes of bucolic simplicity and raging cynicism. The tormented struggle between life (D Major) and death (D Minor) finds a kind of solace in a D-flat Major chorale, interrupted periodically by a haunted bassoon melody. Sometimes this consolation erupts with anguish and doubt, weeping, gnashing its teeth. But an English horn emerges with the flute and tolling harp of the lachrymose first movement. Alban Berg has called the opening Andante comodo “the most heavenly entity Mahler ever wrote.” The rage to live, even in the face of death, asserts itself without embarrassment, a Nietzschean amor fati that ends, like that philosopher’s Zarathustra, by celebrating the child: the violins intone a melody from the fourth of the Kindertotenlieder cycle, whose words invoke that sunny summit where dead children dwell. Mahler’s memories of his beloved four-year-old daughter Maria, deceased of scarlet fever two years prior to the Ninth Symphony, still pulled at his ailing heart. When the final chords die away, we have reached a transcendent place that only faith and consummate art can know, a faith that civilization itself remains a value that resists periodic, perhaps innate, onslaughts from Man’s own malignity.