Downscaled but not diminished – Gripping Mahler 9 from the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

The members of the English Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director & Principal Conductor Kenneth Woods performing Mahler 9 at Wyastone Concert Hall. © ESO Digital

Released online on the composer’s 161st birthday yesterday, the performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 (1908-09) by the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods is a gripping affair. Recorded at Wyastone Hall, in an excellent ensemble version by Klaus Simon, the downscaled symphony comes off remarkably well, with utmost intensity and fine detail.

While the vast symphony was the last one Mahler’s finished in full score, it was not heard in concert in the composer’s lifetime. The symphony was eventually premiered on 26 June 1912, a year after Mahler’s passing, with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Cast in four movements and lasting circa eighty minutes, the symphony is staggering in its conception and emotional scope. The overall form is quite unusual, with two slow movements framing a pairing of Scherzo and Rondo-Burleske, constituting a symphonic arch somewhat akin to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (1893).

The Andante comodo opening movement is a gigantic entity in itself; almost thirty-minute symphonic canvas, hovering at the brink of disintegration. The music is slow to take shape, as the fragmented opening gestures gradually build up to melodic lines and harmonic progressions, only to fall apart again. This unique musical narrative is absolutely enthralling, as Mahler summons striking continuity out of his seemingly disjointed ingredients.

Although originally scored for a large orchestra, the opening movement is almost thoroughly chamber music, written for a multitude of smaller ensembles within the symphonic line-up. Only rarely does the full orchestra come together in brief tutti passages, often dramatically cut short by the composer. Thus, the music lends itself quite naturally to chamber orchestra, especially when reduced as brilliantly as in Simon’s edition.

In its chamber ensemble guise, the music is rescored for sixteen musicians; solo winds and trumpet, two horns, piano, harmonium, percussion and a string quintet. Even though the large orchestra sonorities are lost, astounding array of colour and texture prevails. Piano and harmonium parts are exquisite in generating some orchestral appeal, while the solo lines convey Mahler’s contrapuntal textures with shattering intensity.

The musical architecture is well taken care of by Woods, as the opening movement unfolds in its multi-layered hue. The ESO players deliver a reading of utmost musicality and admirable clarity, giving rise to an absolutely captivating experience.

The second movement, Im Tempo des gemächlichen Ländlers, is a surreal, fifteen-minute scherzo. Marked Etwas täppisch und sehr derb, the music adopts a sardonic tone, one of a dreamscape constantly collapsing into nightmarish vistas. An dance of death, perhaps, the movement is skillfully transformed into its ensemble guise by Simon. Retaining the eerie aura of Mahler’s original writing, Woods and the members of ESO provide an aptly grotesque reading, saluting the composer’s hair-raising vision with dedicated virtuosity and utmost sensitivity.

Following the rustic Ländler, a heated Rondo-Burleske ensues. Here the sonic difference between the large orchestral score and the chamber adaptation is probably the most striking, as the massed weight of the original gives way to more translucent retelling of the musical narrative. However, this is no discredit to Simon’s wonderful edition not to the extraordinary ESO and Woods performance. Rather, it is merely a notion that the movement is relocated from the main street to the alleyways; an urban narrative told from a different point of view.

In any case, the Rondo-Burleske is marvellously served by ESO and Woods, who provide an almost cinematic take on the score, vivid in its dramaturgy, abundant in its astonishing instrumental detail. The musical tensions are conveyed with heated dedication, giving rise to an unforgettable thirteen-minute tableau of shades and long shadows, with impassioned climaxes and telling silences.

In the concluding Adagio, symphonic gestures are reworked by Mahler into a twenty-minute final resignation for the symphony. Heart-piercing in its longing and sorrow, the music adopts a deeply moving tone in its intimate ensemble setting. A mixture of gorgeous solo playing and seamless teamwork, the ESO and Woods performance is awash with notable detail, constituting an architectural entity of gripping power and sonic beauty.

True to Mahler’s symphonic blueprint and orchestral spirit, the ensemble adaptation is both an organic reflection of the composer’s original as well as a terrific instrumental work of its own merit. The performance is one to cherish, providing a perfect way to cherish the legacy of one of the most extraordinary composers in history, whose time did indeed come to stay.

English Symphony Orchestra

Kenneth Woods, conductor

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in four movements (1908-09) – arranged for ensemble by Klaus Simon (2010-11)

Recorded at the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 23-25 March 2021

First released on ESO Digital on Wednesday 7 July 2021, 7.30 pm

© Jari Kallio

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