Surely it's a contradiction in terms – a satisfying and yet strangely dispassionate account of Mahler's Ninth Symphony? It was actually very hard to work out just how one felt as the near-silent disintegrating final bars of Lorin Maazel's expert performance with the London Symphony Orchestra ebbed away. Admiration, satisfaction, but precious little involvement. I cannot say that I was moved. But I was impressed, awed even. And that's a strange mix of feelings to be taking away from Mahler's last completed symphony.
How so? Well, the key to it all was to be found in the opening movement – the opening of the opening movement, actually. A faltering pulse, a sigh-like figure alluding to Beet-hoven's Piano Sonata Les Adieux, and then a long exquisite melody in the second violins. Maazel seemed to stand back from all of this, passively observing. But it was the violin melody that really defined the performance: unnaturally square in its phrasing; without love, lost or otherwise. The movement proceeded in that vein – laid out and laid bare, a seemingly single tempo with few personal nuances. The effect overall was one of openness, brightness, and a steely dissonance. It's been a while since I was reminded just how radical this piece is harmonically. So, abstract, cubist Mahler. Maazel played up the textural anomalies, the sonic hallucinations in this dark night of the soul: the stark tolling of a solo harp pulling our focus from anything else of interest; the remote meandering counterpoint of strings just prior to the final catastrophe.
But then came the middle movements, and if one had any doubts as to Maazel's singular purpose, now it was crystal clear. This man revels in the science, the gamesmanship, of performance. To do that, you need an orchestra of infinite technical possibility. The LSO was that orchestra. The virtuosity of these distracted inner movements was breathtaking. The desperate country dancing of the second, so tight-lipped in its geniality, brought an almost alarming trenchancy from the strings, galumphing tuba leading, accompanying trombones in a dance of death for Mahler. As for the quasi-baroque counterpoint of the Rondo Burleske, the freaky E-flat clarinet leaping out like a spook seemed to sum up Maazel's delight in orchestral colour for its own sake. The beautiful central episode – a premonition of the finale's unearthly tranquillity – brought exquisite trumpet-playing, parodied by squally clarinets. But it was the parody you remembered. And the coda – as fast as it was furious. Hair-raising.
But as the finale bowed in, Beethoven again recalled in another emotive sigh from the strings, the sheer weight of sonority was at once more about sound than sensibility. The gesture, not the reasons for it. Strangely heartless. And so it continued, sonority piled upon sonority, a glorious defiance, until the final unravelling – a series of breathless glissandi and silent bars to nothingness. I still don't know what I felt at the end of it. I know I didn't feel the loss. But I felt something. Admiration?
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