Mahler Symphony No. 9. London Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Ludwig 1959. Everest EVC 9059 (1997), barcode 723918905921
Recorded November 1959, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
The first stereo Mahler 9th and an unjustly neglected version
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 3 November 2011
This came as an unexpected surprise. Although Everest is vague about the recording dates, giving only the year of release (1960), the discography of the London Symphony Orchestra, by the invaluable Philip Stuart (last time I checked, and still upon repost of this review on discophage.com in April 2021, you could download it from the website of CHARM, the Centre for History and Analysis of Recorded Music, bless them) indicates that this recording was made in November 1959. These were times of scarcity: Walter’s first recording, live with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1938, came out in the 78rmps days (link will open new tab to my review), to be replaced in 1952 and in the mono LP era by Horenstein on Vox – both great versions musically, in two hugely contrasted approaches, if sonically outdated when came the age of stereo. The version of Paul Kletzki, made for EMI with the Israel Philharmonic in 1954 was never much in the running because of its cuts, and that was it.
But, despite being the first stereo recording of the 9th, this version by Leopold Ludwig never made much of a splash, because it was soon superseded by Walter’s 1961 remake for Columbia, then by the recordings of Barbirolli with the Berlin Phil (EMI 1964), Bernstein (New York 1965 Columbia, first released only at the end of 1967), Ancerl for the cognoscenti (Supraphon 1966, first published in the US on the Crossroads label, also in 1967), Klemperer (EMI 1967), Kubelik (DG 1967) and Solti (first version, with the London Symphony Orchestra, 1967; he re-recorded it in 1982 with Chicago). By then the erstwhile state-of-the-art Everest had run into dire straights and turned into a cheap label, so Ludwig’s recording was very much confined to the cut-out bins and forgotten, when not commented with scorn (when I first posted this review on Amazon.com, it was greeted with scathing comments by cantankerous reviewer Santa Fe Listener, who later became an excellent critic with Fanfare Magazine under the alias Huntley Dent).
What a shame. Hearing it today (I never had until now, and bought it more out of interest for the label than for any expectation concerning the recording itself), I find much to enjoy with it, and even more than that in the last two movements. First, the sonics: compared to Horenstein’s mono 1952, the are a huge leap. They may not be as vivid as those afforded by Columbia to Bruno Walter a little more than a year later, and the strings can be cottony at times (it didn’t strike me on first hearing, but becomes clear on comparative listening with later recordings), but I especially enjoyed the clarity of the separation of first and second violins, essential in the outer movements given Mahler’s antiphonal writing for them and the risk (often encountered in other recordings, and not only from the mono era) that they’ll get blended into an indistinct unity. Same with violas, cellos and basses, but every thread of Mahler’s complex and intricate contrapuntal writing is clearly heard. Add to that that the London Symphony Orchestra plays superlatively (other than a trumpet passage at 7:07 in the 2nd movement Ländler that would have called for a retake, and a few miniscule glitches from the violins in the demanding finale).
Then Ludwig’s interpretation. Leopold Ludwig (1908-1979) was certainly not one of the recognized 20th century masters of the baton – to the point that he doesn’t even get an entry on English Wikipedia. Active as the General music director of the Hamburg Opera between 1951 and 1971, he has not left, I think, any better memory than that of a Kapellmeister of little musical interest. One also doesn’t associate him with Mahler, and indeed, other than this Mahler 9th, he recorded only the 4th symphony (Berlin Classics BC 2119-2, barcode 782124211929) and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (an early Urania LP, URLP 7016, with Josef Metternich, paired with the Kindertotenlieder sung by Lorri Lail and conducted by Rolf Kleinert; the Gesellen-Lieder have been reissued on CD by Preiser Records, Mono 90536, barcode 717281905367).
And certainly there were, after AND before, recordings that, in the first movement, plumbed deeper depths. There was more intensity in Walter’s 1938 premiere recording, and Horenstein in 1952 had almost everything right. Many, from Walter to Giulini in 1976 and Bernstein in his 1979 Berlin concert by way of Barbirolli and Klemperer, have certainly wrung more expression from those violin phrases that open the first movement (Ludwig glides over them with more lyrical warmth than aching sadness), and many recordings have set more store and spotlight on Mahler’s myriad instrumental details and found more bite and snap in the brass interjections.
But the value of Ludwig’s reading here comes, I find, precisely from its relative understatement. Nothing is forced, nothing is spotlighted and pencil-marked as so many Mahler conductors have been wont to do, the forte dynamics are forte and not triple forte (try the brass and timpani chord at 1:47 in the first movement, measure 29), and even some of the double forte are forte (stopped horn at 6:42 measure 112). While this may seem to justify Santa Fe Listener’s contention that “this is a slack, uninspired performance”, I find this approach very restful. There is so much emotion already in Mahler’s notes, one doesn’t necessarily need to try and milk the last drop of expression out of them. Just letting the music flow from them is just fine and Ludwig may not wrench his soul out the way, say, Bernstein does: he plays the music. It is a version that flows very naturally. In this formally complex first movement, Ludwig’s tempos and tempo relationships are perfectly well-judged, with no excesses of slow or fast (try the allegro section at 6:06, measure 102), but everything is there as it should: Ludwig has his orchestra play with enough fury when Mahler calls for it (“Mit Wut”, at 10:00, measure 174), and there is plenty of passion when it is required (as in the section starting at 19:03, measure 347). The moments of stasis really convey an impression of ominous standstill (the brass fanfare at 13:19, measure 243, and the ensuing “schattenhaft/shadowy” passage). Ludwig is always observant of the score and, for instance, unlike Walter and Bernstein (but like Horenstein), he doesn’t apply Mahler’s Tempo I marking two bars too soon at 6:20 (measure 108). And sometimes, some instrumental details even stand out, such as the resounding, tolling double-bass pizzicato at 7:01 (measure 120).
The Ländler will come as a shock to all those nursed on Walter: its opening tempo is very fast, not so much in the mood of a “slow country dance” (the very definition of a Ländler, which Mahler further characterizes as “gemächlich”, comfortable) and not very “heavily clumsy” (“schwerfällig”), as lively and merry. Ludwig is in this movement at his most controversial in his inobservance of Mahler’s instructions. Mahler establishes three different and contrasting tempos, a fast one (Tempo II), a slow one (Tempo III) and one in between (Tempo I). But Ludwig’s brisk Tempo I downplays the contrast with the faster Tempo II (2:10, measure 90), and then his very brisk Tempo III (4:44, measure 218) – which following Mahler should on the contrary have been “ganz langsam” (very slow) – kills any contrast with Tempo I and II. Other than that, the LSO players phrase with the required sauciness and instrumental character, so I welcome Ludwig’s approach as an interesting alternative view, albeit not based on score.
But where you can’t accuse Ludwig of understatement is in the Rondo-Burleske, and the claim that “Leopold Ludwig’s Mahler Ninth avoids histrionics” (as stated by another Amazon reviewer) certainly does NOT pertain to this movement, if only because he adopts, in the outer sections, the fastest tempo of all versions I’ve ever heard, including Walter’s 1938 recording and Scherchen’s live version from 1950 (overall Ludwig is longer than Walter because his middle section is more held back). And after all, Mahler did write “allegro assai”, “assai” in Italian meaning “very”, or “extremely”, to which he added “sehr trotzig”, “very defiant” (but on these arcane points of philology, see the discussion with pclaudel in the comments). Bernstein in 1965 whipped up his Newyorkers to a state of frenzy in the movement’s coda, but Ludwig’s Londoners are in a state of frenzy from the start. You wonder if they’ll have any reserve for the double acceleration of the coda (Mahler goes to “più stretto”/ “thighter”, then to “presto”). Well – not by a wide margin, but they do. And the marvel is that all the contrapuntal lines of Mahler are kept perfectly together, with no instrumental weakness in any department. Because it is so extreme, this must be one of the best Rondo-Burleske ever recorded, and should certainly be a reference for anybody seriously interested in Mahler’s 9th. Here again, I want to point out Ludwig’s minute faithfulness to Mahler’s score: unlike Walter and Bernstein (and, again, like Horenstein), he doesn’t anticipate by six measures Mahler’s marking “etwas gehalten” (somewhat held back) at 5:29 and slows down the orchestra where indicated, at measure 354, rather than when enters the change of mood heralded by the string tremolos and flute flattertongue measure 347. The way Walter and Bernstein do it makes sense musically, and no one would have any objection if Mahler had written it that way, but the point is: it is nice to hear exactly what Mahler wrote, and hearing it confirms that it also makes sense musically. Also, true again to Mahler, Ludwig doesn’t slam the breaks but holds back only “somewhat”. Taking that passage, up until 9:34/measure 522 – functioning as the B or trio section in an A-B-A scherzo form – at this relatively brisk tempo lends a searing intensity to its climaxes. But here Ludwig is not either just inflexibly hard-driven, and the way he relaxes the tempo for the sake of lyrical tenderness at 8:35 (measure 482 and after, a phrase notated “molto espressivo”) testifies to wonderful musicianship. What impulse seized the percussionist to play a few notes of glockenspiel at 9:24 (measure 514) is anybody’s guess, but it certainly wasn’t prescribed by Mahler.
It is a tribute to Mahler’s extraordinarily beautiful finale that I’ve rarely heard a version that I could call less than outstanding, be it in such extreme approaches as Walter’s in 1938 (TT 18:06) or Levine’s in 1979 (TT 29:49). Ludwig’s version comes closest to Horenstein’s but with much better sound, and indeed it leaves little to be desired. One thing is certain, there is nothing understated here, the strings play with the “big tone” required by Mahler (but the violins’ staggered first attack should have been corrected), the climaxes culminate with great intensity. The finale is not just a long adagio, and like Horenstein, Ludwig tends to underplay the changes of tempo and Mahler’s various instructions to play “straffer in tempo” (tighter), “etwas drängend” (somewhat pressing), “fliessender” (more flowing), but he creates tension through changes of dynamics and phrasings rather than of tempo, as in the passage starting at 14:19, measure 107 (“fliessender doch durchaus nicht eilend”, more flowing but not altogether hurried), accelerating to “nun etwas drängend” (now somewhat pressing) and reaching a climax at “sehr fliessend”, very flowing, where Ludwig develops a climax of searing intensity. And another illustration of Ludwig’s admirable attention to details: in the coda, measure 155, at 20:10, there is a 2 bar phrase played by cello solo in a slow tempo, “very tender but expressive”, with a small acceleration on the second bar (“fliessend”). Walter (in his 1938 version), Horenstein, Bernstein in 1965 didn’t do much of that “fliessend”, kept a steady tempo and didn’t express very much other than standstill (Walter in 1961 was slightly more expressive). Ludwig’s cellist plays that second bar “fliessend”, and with him it sounds not like notes of music, but like a plangent opera recitative.
This was one of the significant milestones in the composition’s recorded history, and it is a pity that it was such a neglected one. While it was praised by its initial reviewer in the Gramophone issue of October 1961, later references to it, in reviews of the new recordings that followed it, by the Gramophone’s Mahler reviewer who, by then, was no less than Deryck Cooke, were scathing. I can understand why: what was the value of understatement when the market wasn’t yet glutted with “overstated” versions? What was the value of an “alternative” view of the Ländler when the “standard” view wasn’t yet established? It is easier to appreciate its merits today. It retains an interest that is not just historical – and it is not too late to repair the oversight.
A post-script from March 2016. I’ve been working on a discography of the audiophile reissues of the Everest catalog made in the CD era. On that occasion, I got in touch with the company, a subsidiary of BMG, which now holds the copyrights to these recordings and the original masters. Let me quote:
“We have the original master tapes here in Hamburg which we used for the series of reissues which we started around 2010. These reissues include high resolution download versions (96kHz/24bit and 192kHz/24bit) including digital booklets, currently available on HDtracks, as well as Mastered for iTunes versions (including booklets) available on iTunes. CD versions are available from Amazon’s Disc-On-Demand service.”
Which means that all those of you who missed state-of-the-art CD reissues from the mid-1990s and have been salivating after them ever since, can now get those recordings and more, for cheaper, and in great sonic conditions (I’ve just listen to the thirty-second samples of this one on HD track and they seem great indeed).