I seem to recall that it was the composer and broadcaster Harold Truscott who back in the late 1960s gave a BBC ‘Interpretations on Record’ lecture on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony centring on a live recording by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer’s disciple Bruno Walter which was made in 1938 shortly before the Anschluss (annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany). To my teenage ears it was a revelation, so profoundly unlike Walter’s affectionate but woefully undercharged post-war stereo recording. These scratchy old 78s approximated war footage with no holds barred, the music anticipating the terror, violence and cruelty that raped Europe some thirty years after the Symphony was written. Walter had it in a nutshell, or so it seemed, even though some of the playing was decidedly rough-edged. So, when some five or six years later I saw a set for sale as advertised in the classified pages of The Gramophone it was only natural that I should traipse, via public transport, with my then newlywed wife Georgie to some scenically pretty but geographically godforsaken place miles from anywhere to pick up two heavy packages of shellac discs. As it happened back in those days there had never been a British LP transfer of the recording and the one from The States was next to impossible to locate. So it was well worth it. I’m eternally grateful dear Golden Wedding star Georgie, even though I now have the recording on CD. But is the performance unique? Until a day or so ago I would have said ‘yes’. But a superbly recorded new cycle of the ‘complete’ symphonies (minus a ‘performing version’ of the Tenth) by the Stuttgart Philharmonic and Dortmund Philharmonic under Gabriel Feltz (Dreyer Gaido 21140, 10 cds, plus four multi-channel SACDs, c£65 – release date: 29th Apr 2022) has something of the same demonic quality that Walter had before the War. Feltz (General Music Director of the Dortmund Opera and Chief Conductor of the Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra) is something of a dab hand at Fin de siècle music and his 9th is boldly outspoken. Aside from one halting peculiarity towards the close of the madcap Rondo-Burleske (12:14 in, then again at 12:25) it bears its heart much as Walter’s did, especially in the raging climaxes of the first movement.
I’ll quote timing points here because if in doubt you don’t need to take my words for it: the set is up online for all to sample via Spotify. For example, regarding the Fifth, a performance that again connects with Mahler’s fervid muse, the soft cellos at 4:30 into the vehement second movement peer so far inwards they virtually vanish and yet their surrounding context is utter frenzy. The bass drum makes an especially impressive showing, more so than on many rival recordings. This is Mahler reaching sky-high before collapsing in a state of exhaustion, the music fragmenting like torn scraps tossed by the wind. Feltz keeps the Scherzo lively and affectionate whereas the songlike aspect of the Adagietto occupies the brighter side of solemnity, a reading full of warmth and on the evidence of the playing, sincerity. The Resurrection (Second) Symphony’s funereal 23-minute first movement alternates hope and horror, the latter especially at 11:43 when the angry opening idea returns capped by a deafening tam-tam. The beauty of Feltz’s approach to the Symphony’s second half is in his impeccable sense of timing, each pause perfectly judged, the balance too (note the ethereal-sounding off-stage brass), suspense being very much of the essence, the beautiful ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light) movement given a magical rendition by mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. Feltz paces the finales of both choral symphonies with a knowing hand.
Feltz’s Eighth opens rather in the manner of Dimitri Mitropoulos’s fitfully inspired 1960 live Salzburg Festival recording with the Vienna Philharmonic except that it’s far less heavy-handed and infinitely better recorded. Best though to sample the finale (from track 16), which sails on high thanks to soprano Emily Newton: the closing pages will draw you to your feet, much as they did the loudly appreciative audience (all performances are tailed by applause but there’s time for you to make an exit f you so wish). As to the stream-of-consciousness Seventh or “Song of the Night” (I always think of it as Mahler’s ‘Hippy symphony’!), try the reptilian scherzo where Feltz vies with Rafael Kubelík for a vivid evocation of ‘things that go bump in the night’.
There are some oddities. In the first movement of Third Symphony (‘Summer Marches In’) lower strings take to marching at a moderate pace at 20:07 but when yelping winds join the fray (20:31) Feltz doubles the pace and increases it even more once the timps get going. Thrilling no doubt about that but it’ll take some getting used to. And in the First Symphony, there’s more speeding around the coda of the first movement (join around, 14:05). It works especially well where the timps playfully attempt to push the woodwinds back, though in the end both reach the finishing line simultaneously. And there’s Feltz’s quite exceptional reading of the Fourth Symphony. The opening jogtrots along happily until around 8:45, as the tension mounts, the tempo increases with it, more so than I’ve heard on other versions. But the gem here is the heavenly slow movement, this time with indicated accelerations, maybe children rushing to (metaphorically) catch the setting sun, a place where innocence becomes an initiation into some holy truth. Everything here comes together: heady excitement, rapturous soft playing (from 21:12) and a thunderous fortissimo episode just before the movement’s close.
Thunder of a quite different order troubles the finale of the Sixth Symphony, primarily in climactic hammer blows but even more so for the Symphony’s final full chord which Feltz lands with an incendiary wallop. Here moderate tempos are grimly appropriate; the first movement includes its all-important repeat and the pounding scherzo follows it (rather than the slow movement, an option that some follow). The performance of finale, a real scorcher, will take some matching. Incidentally is it just me or are there a couple of West Side Story premonitions here (specifically 18:12 into the first movement [leading into ‘Tonight’?] then 10:07 into the slow movement). Do let me know if you agree.
The set comes packaged with a sizeable book complete with music examples, commentaries on the music and biographies. I shan’t pretend that everything is perfect – few live recordings ever are – but if you suspect that you’ve already heard one Mahler cycle too many, Feltz’s isn’t one of them. Listen, love and learn afresh.