Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Maderna, live 27 May 1967. HUNTCD 547, Arkadia CDHP 547.1

Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Maderna, live 27 May 1967. Hunt Productions HUNTCD 547 (1988) no barcode

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Arkadia CDHP 547.1 (1993), barcode 8011571547018:




Mahler’s Seventh by Maderna: even more problematic in conception than in execution
24 January 2023

I don’t have this CD, published by Hunt Productions in 1988, reissued on Arkadia in 1993. It is the first of two documented live performances by composer-conductor Bruno Maderna of Mahler’s 7th Symphony – the other one, with the Italian Radio Orchestra (RAI) of Milano, from December 24, 1971, was released by Arkadia in 1993 on their Maderna series, CDMAD 028.4 barcode 8011571028043, a 4 CD-set also documenting live performances of Symphonies 3, 5 and 9, see listing on pending my review (link will open new tab). But it’s been uploaded on YouTube – and three times rather than once, here, here (with reverb’ added) and here again.

Well, I’m glad I haven’t shelled out a penny for the right to listen to that one. It is a – to understate it– a very problematic performance, both in conception and in execution. My first reaction was summarized by the word “atrocious” and the potential title for this review “Mahler by the Addamses”, but on more careful hearing I now think the word and title would do injustice to the positive aspects of the performance.

Execution. Okay, I’m making all due amends for the fact that this is a live performance, and given in a time when orchestras, even those of Vienna, didn’t have the music of Mahler in their stride – and it is difficult music, both in ensemble and in the solo demands made on each orchestral section. So I’m not holding it, neither against instrumentalist or conductor, that the Tenorhorn dangerously wobbles at times and is close to derailing (try 1:12), and likewise with the trumpets at 14:41 (measure 391), although here, coming in a short four-bar “poco rit.” passage, it may be indicative of an unclear beat by the conductor: but those are the conditions of a live concert. Sonics (as reproduced on YouTube – all my references hereunder to specific timings are from the video of the first link provided above) are harsh – but not bad for a 1967 aircheck, enough details and orchestral presence are heard, and the sonic perspective is realistic (the opening tenorhorn and more generally the brass solos sound imbedded into the orchestra rather than playing from the seat next to you). String tone is anemic at times, especially in the beautiful moments of repose in the first movement where Mahler writes four-part chords for celli and violas (8:44, again at 10:10), and you get the impression that only a quartet of each is playing – but maybe Maderna did ask for that, and the ear adjusts.

But listen to the very beginning of the Symphony: it starts with the required deliberation and weight – but strings and woodwinds are not together, and that’s a conductorial problem. Measure 4 – you are not yet 30 seconds into the symphony – oboes enter a beat too soon, playing with flutes and clarinets a canon that Mahler never wrote. That’s when I scribbled down the word “atrocious”.

It gets better thereafter, and execution blotches aren’t equally distributed throughout the Symphony: the 4th movement (second Nachtmusik) is devoid of them; there, the characteristic mandolin sounds very metallic, but sonorous, the vaguely monstrous cross-breed of a mandolin and a harpsichord. In the second movement (first Nachtmusik), Maderna has the cowbells play, not as Mahler instructs, “realistically”, e.g. “intermittently”, in imitation of a herd sounding at a distance, but continuously, as a triangle would do (25:03, rehearsal figure 84). But some of the problems in execution are clearly linked to the far more problematical issues that arise from Maderna’s very conception and “interpretation” (in both senses) of the score.

Based on this and the Mahler performances of 3, 5, 7 and 9 contained in the Arkadia set, Maderrna was an extremely wayward Mahler conductor – more even than the great maverick Hermann Scherchen, and that’s saying A LOT. I don’t object to that in itself: it can be interesting to have a conductor approach the score with no subservience to established interpretive “traditions”, which are often the interpretive choices made – and not always in accordance with the score – by the recording pioneers. It is always a danger and a big risk-taking, in Mahler’s music, to stray from the score: one of the greatest conductors of his time, Mahler arguably knew – and wrote down – exactly what was the best for his music. A performer cannot go wrong in Mahler by being a stickler to the score.

That said, those who’ve strayed – and that starts with Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein -, adding an unprescribed rallentendo here, a rubato or accelerando there – have usually done so only marginally, and although not prescribed by the composer, the choices always make musical sense (how could Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein not be “musical”?), generating the thought that “maybe the composer didn’t write it – but it wouldn’t shock if he had”.

So I don’t have a position “in principle” towards conductors who “do it their way” rather than strictly follow the score: I try to remain open and welcoming to the musical result, and judge it on its own terms. As I mentioned, under Maderna (and orchestra’s ensemble problems notwithstanding), the beginning is quite beautifully, starting with the required deliberation and weight, and tenorhorn suitably pensive and potent, like a shackled giant. The transition at “etwas weniger langsamer, aber immer sehr gemessen”, measure 19, at 1:37 (“a bit less slow, but still measured” – and mind you, Mahler doesn’t write “a bit faster”) is well done, progressive and organic rather than, as with others including Bernstein, perceptible if not brutal (and indeed Mahler doesn’t write “allmählig etwas weniger langsamer”, progressively a bit less slow), and I can easily condone that Maderna keeps “schlepping” in the three bars where Mahler instructs “nicht schleppen/do not drag” (2:02), and doesn’t “dräng” (press) on the odd measure where Mahler writes “drängend” (2:15), before the return of tempo 1 at 2:24 – and at least he is consistent, as he schlepps again at the return of the same music at 2:44. Although it neglects some of Mahler’s instructions, I like the sense of a slow, burdened unfolding that Maderna imparts to the Symphony’s beginning, with almost imperceptible transitions. Except….

…that this unfolding is supposed to lead, through a progressive acceleration (“From here on imperceptibly pressing” – “più mosso / more animated” – “pressing”) that Maderna manages well (and by then the orchestra seems to have pulled itself together – and this “together” is not just a figure of speech), to an “Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo” section (rehearsal figure 6)… only to see Maderna, instead of launching “resolutely” in the Allegro pacing, appear to slam the breaks (3:33), taking his cue, maybe, from Mahler’s “ma non troppo” rather than his “Allegro risoluto” .

To give some credit to Maderna, Mahler’s new tempo is open to interpretation here, as the new figure played by horns in half-notes is the same that the trumpets played as quarter-notes in the previous passage. The established interpretive tradition is to take the new tempo as exactly the double of the one reached just before, at the end of the acceleration, so that the melodic figure will sound exactly alike and no impression of tempo change (faster or slower) will arise, just an organic acceleration to an Allegro tempo. That approach is not the interpreters’ whim, it is based on the fact that later on, the same thing happens, but there Mahler explicitly instructs for the new 2/2 beat to be equal to the previous 4/4 (four bars after rehearsal figure 18), and the beat then alternates regularly in the course of the movement between “equal” 4/4 and 2/2. Yet, on this first occurrence, by neglect or by choice, Mahler doesn’t explicitly instruct to do so – and his “ma non troppo” indication can even be understood as a warning NOT to double the tempo – which is what Maderna does: his new pacing gives the impression of being slower only because his 2/2 beat is slower than his 4/4 beat was, but translated in 4/4 his new beat is indeed significantly faster than his previous 4/4 (though not twice as fast). Still; the established tradition makes musical sense, and Maderna’s way is jarring (eternal gratitude to the Austrian National Library, for uploading the copyist’s manuscript with Mahler’s corrrections on the International Music Scores Library Project. The section there is, in Mahler’s original thought, notated “Allegro con fuoco”; it is still the indication on the first edition of the score, by Bote und Bock, in 1909. The indication “Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo” was introduced in the 1960 revision by Erwin Ratz, that is now the “Urtext” edition). That said, the initial impression of sluggishness is soon offset by a progressive acceleration, combined with great vigor in the string attacks (try 4:06, measure 79).

At 4:55 (measure 118), Maderna neglects Mahler’s instruction to return to tempo I after two bars of ritenuto, and he produces Mahler’s requested “mit Schwung” through a larger pacing rather than just string tone and intensity. I don’t mind: it works that way too, and he keeps the tempo very flexible thereafter, as in a passionate panting. But when returns the “a tempo Allegro” (5:44), Maderrna is now in a “normal”, suitable, energetic and forward moving allegro, which in itself is fine, except that it is markedly faster than the same Allegro tempo that Maderna had established two minutes earlier; but to the conductor’s credit again, Mahler adds, two bars after the return of the Allegro indication: “flott” (fast, brisk), so maybe Maderna just anticipated that by two bars.

And Maderna is exceptionable again, not only in his (in)observance of Mahler’s instructions, but also in the musical impression produced, when comes that now explicit instruction of Mahler to exactly double the tempo (6:05). Maderna’s new beat is perceptibly more held back to the previous one, and near the dragging tempo he had adopted the first time around, which may be consistent but now goes explicitly against Mahler’s instruction, and again I find it jarring. Maybe Maderna is heeding Mahler’s “poco pesante” indication there – but I doubt it, because when comes Mahler’s way more commanding “molto pesante e misurato” at 6:39 (measure 174), followed by “nicht eilen / do not rush” (6:54, measure 188) and a bar of “poco rit.” (measure 192), Maderna does nothing of it and keeps the proceedings flowing and martial. But, to give him credit again, the martial character he imparts to the marching music there is invigorating. Then – and here is a moment when the problems of execution clearly arise from problems in conception – because Maderna did not observe Mahler’s instructions to progressively hold back, the orchestra is left with only three bars of “ganz zurückhaltend” (greatly decelerating”) to ridiculously scramble to get into the new “Moderato” tempo – this sounds like an inebriated band of sophomore partyers rather than like a disciplined army. In the moderato and plaintive section that immediately ensues (7:04, rehearsal figure 24), I hear the solo cello very clearly, but is it my ears or have solo viola and violin failed (or been instructed not to) play their part? I don’t think it’s my ear, because I hear perfectly distinctly and exactly where it should be the violin’s next and extended solo, from 9:14 to 9:40 (“Subito Allegro I” section starting measure 266). Finally, I cannot describe what happens at 7:45 (measure 228), when, as per Mahler’s indication, the beat returns to a 2/2 – except maybe in terms of cat-screeching. Maybe the podium under the brass just collapsed. At any rate, that’s another moment in the execution that deserves the word “atrocious”. And thereafter, with all the commotion and given the sonics of the 1967 live concert, I wouldn’t stake my hand that the solo trumpet in b plays what he is assigned. But the forward-movement and general din sweep all.

And again, to give Maderna some credit where it is due, his tremendously vigorous “go forward, no questions asked” approach to the extended march passage after the “atrocious” moment (circa 7:50 to 8:35), and again to the end of the movement (14:23 to 19:10), develops considerable energy and excitement. I don’t hold it against Maderrna that, in the beautifully lyrical section between those two marching moments, he doesn’t “milk” Mahler’s instructions to hold back (“gemessener / more measured” followed by “meno mosso / less animated”; and later on, from 9:50 to 12:10, “etwas gemessener / somewhat more measured” followed by “sehr gehalten / very held back” followed by “sehr feierlich / very solemn”, “sehr breit / very large”, “tempo (molto moderato)”, “gehalten/held back”). The lost lesson of the Toscanini generation is to keep the music moving forward even in the more lyrical moments, and make the lyricism passionate rather than sentimental.

I’ve gone into so much detail in the first movement because, after all, that’s where I started listening to the recording, but it would be tedious for me to continue in such a manner for the next four. Orchestra gets cleaner (a few sonic glitches, like a beat lost at the beginning of the second movement at 19:43, trumpet entering a beat too late at 27:49 measure 181). Conception remains problematical. Under Maderna, the second movement, with its reminiscences of Mahler’s youthful Knaben Wunderhorn marches, alternates between moments of perfectly well-judged tempos, fine instrumental character and appropriate snap from the strings, and some that not only go against Mahler’s explicit instruction to play faster, or slower, or not faster or not slower (it has often been remarked that many of Mahler’s tempo indications are in negative form, “do no press” or “do not drag”), or even his absence of any indication, but do so at at a jarring musical result, giving a distorted impression of the music. As an illustration and a good encapsulation, try at 29:33: note the very expansive and sluggish pacing, and see how it markedly accelerates to a more “normal” (and fine) marching tempo at 30:00… where the score bears no tempo indication whatsoever. Maderrna launches into the central Scherzo at a headlong, precipitous pace, observant of Mahler’s “flowing” indication, but oblivious of the “but not to fast” the composer qualifies it with. The problem of Maderna’s way here is that he’s so fast to start with, it leaves him no possibility to respond to Mahler’s invitations to accelerate: “progressively more flowing”, “somewhat faster” – or, at the return of the Scherzo after the middle Trio, the composer’s “wild” (Maderna is wild from top), then his repeated “piu mossos”. In the trio section, while observing Mahler’s constant rubato (short sections marked “piu mosso subito”), he isn’t very responsive to the composer’s three bars of “do not press” and “pesante” (38:46). Likewise, at the return of the Scherzo he doesn’t respond to Mahler’s indication “etwas gehalten / somewhat held back” at 39:23. Nonetheless, for all its lack of flexibility and subtlety, the approach might have procuded a searing, scorching result – had the orchestra been able to follow suit. But they appear to be scrambling just to keep together and keep up with Maderna’s wild tempo.

No particular qualms with the 4th movement, except maybe that Maderna takes it a tempo that I find a tad too slow and that (I find) sentimentalizes the music more than it needs to be. Mahler’s second Nachtmusik is already tender and sentimental, it is even (I find) all about tenderness and sentimentality, the conductor has to avoid milking it to the saccharine, and a find that a more flowing tempo helps. But I recognize that it’s a matter of taste. Though not devoid of some rough patches in ensemble playing (the worst is at 1:04:16, a new section that sees the return of the movement’s Tempo II, and where timps jumpstart the beat and don’t play together with strings, very “dirty” and jarring) and a few vagaries of tempo (as at 1:06:30 measure 276, when Maderna slows down where Mahler instructs to play “fliessender”, more flowingly – and that’s because he didn’t slow down at 1:06:19 as he should have, but let himself be swept away by the previous “drängend / pressing” demand of Mahler), the Finale is even excellent, with Maderna finally (and finely) responsive enough to Mahler’s myriad indications of tempo, whether it is to play faster, or slower and “pesante”, making you regret what the performance might have been.

I’ll keep the title “Mahler by the Addamses” for my review of Klemperer’s Seventh, then. That said, for all that it might have been – a performance of great power and fury – there are such interpretations, in the studio, with great orchestras, perfect execution and great stereo sonics, like those of Solti and Levine. This is only for fans of Maderna-as-conductors (are there any out there?) or collectors of every scrap of Mahler. Thanks anyway for uploading it to YouTube.

Comments are welcome