Mahler Symphony No. 9. Wiener Symphoniker (Vienna Symphony Orchestra), Hermann Scherchen live 1950. Orfeo C 228 901 B (1990)

Mahler Symphony No. 9. Wiener Symphoniker (Vienna Symphony Orchestra), Hermann Scherchen live 1950. Orfeo C 228 901 B (1990), barcode 4011790228129


Recorded 19 June 1950, Great Hall (Groβer Saal) of the Wiener Musikverein, Vienna

Mahler for those who like to think different (and don’t mind a scrappy orchestra)
Originally posted on, 7 November 2011

Hermann Scherchen didn’t belong to the “first generation” of Mahler conductors documented on records, those who, like Willem Mengelberg, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer or Oscar Fried, had direct contact with the composer. But he did belong at least to the “second” generation, those early champions of Mahler from the 1920s onwards, along with Carl Schuricht, Leopold Stokowski (who, despite never working with Mahler, attended the premiere of the 8th Symphony in Munich in 1910), Charles Adler (although his Wikipedia entry claims that he was one of the chorus conductors in the Mahler-conducted premiere of the 8th Symphony in September 1910, Henri-Louis de la Grange nowhere mentions his name in his mammoth and authoritative biography), Hans Rosbaud, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Eduard Flipse, Jascha Horenstein, William Steinberg, Eugene Ormandy, John Barbirolli (but Barbirolli is really a “third generation” Mahlerite, since he didn’t come to the composer until the late 1950s), Paul Kletzki and Maurice Abravanel. Scherchen made pioneering recordings of Mahler symphonies for the label Westminster in the early 1950s (symphonies 1, 2, 5, 7, Adagio of the 10th, Kindertotenlieder and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) and Columbia also released a live recording of the 8th from 1952, a premiere on record (Stokowski’s off-the-air recording from New York in 1950 was issued on LP only later). Those were times of scarcity, when new recordings of Mahler symphonies didn’t throng by the dozen every month; some of those Westminster recordings were LP premieres (5th) or seconds (7th) and soon became much sought-after collector items. On the oher hand Scherchen never made studio recordings of symphonies 3, 4, 6 and 9, although live recordings of 3 and 6 surfaced in the recent years. Likewise, the value of the present disc – a recording for the Austrian radio, made without an audience in studio conditions with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra on June 19, 1950, published by Orfeo in 1990 – is that it is Scherchen’s only testimonial in Mahler’s last finished symphony.

In 1950 the only recorded precedent was Walter’s live 1938 recording, Image 1 - DB 3613/22 Mahler Symphony No. 9 / Walter / VPO 10 x 78 rpmwhich at that time had not yet been reissued on LP (link will open a new tab to my review); Horenstein’s Vox recording, made with the same Vienna Symphony Orchestra as here, was still two years in the making. So it may not be a surprise that Scherchen’s approach comes closer to Walter’s in 1938 than to any subsequent version. Not in the first movement, though. Scherchen was always, and in any repertoire, a maverick, a highly personal, if not wayward interpreter, and here he is exactly that, to the hilt. Under Scherchen’s baton that first movement is no autumnal leave-taking or melancholy meditation on love and the world interrupted by violent outbursts. For whatever validity such highly subjective images may have, it is a passionate and violent love song. Not Mahler’s farewell to the world while still under the shock of the death of his daughter and the news of his heart ailment, but (despite the anachronism) Alma’s love affair with Walter Gropius (which started and was discovered by Mahler only after the completion of the symphony, but whose pain inflicted upon him suffuses the manuscript of the unfinished 10th). It is not that the movement flows, as it did with Walter in 1938: it runs, it rushes (try the section starting with the first outburst, at 1:27, measure 29). It is a torrent gushing forth, to the point, at times, of dangerously verging on the caricature. Just to give an idea, Scherchen’s first movement clocks at 21:03. Compare that to Walter’s 1938 version – by all means a very swift reading, but still totalling 24:40 -, to Walter’s 1961 remake for Columbia (29:14), or to Bernstein in 1965 (28:15). Where Scherchen is more “in the norm” and where you recognize the 9th you thought you knew is in some of the movement’s slower passages, such as the “schattenhaft” (shadowy) starting at 10:36 (measure 254) or the “gehalten” (held back) at 13:10 (measure 321), where he conveys the sense of an ominous menace and of a”schwerer Kondukt” (heavy funeral procession – despite the trumpet’s wrong notes), reaching great intensity and pathos at the “answachsend” (swelling, rising) passage at 14:45 (measure 350).

We are in more familiar territory in Scherchen’s Ländler, which follows the interpretive model established by Walter in 1938 and pursued by Horenstein in 1952 and by Walter again in his 1961 stereo remake, with a deliberate Tempo I and saucy instrumental character establishing a mood of good-humored bonhomie. Scherchen’s acceleration at 10:52 (“allmählich in Tempo II übergehen”, “move progressively to Tempo II”) starts a bit brutally but develops very effectively, a Coney Island merry-go-round turning wild, although his hectic arrival tempo (disregarding Mahler’s “doch nie überhetzt” instruction, “but never too hectic”), as exhilarating as it is, forces Scherchen to brutally slam the breaks at 12:35 (on the rising horn theme reminisced from the first movement, measure 515) without any indication of Mahler to do so. Scherchen’s furious Rondo-Burleske will shock those nursed on Bruno Walter’s more deliberate 1961 remake, but it is not without precedent – in fact it is remarkably close to Walter’s approach in 1938 – or sequel (starting with Leopold Ludwig in 1959 for Everest, an unjustly neglected recording), and I happen to firmly believe that this approach is closer to Mahler’s tempo/character indication (“Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig”: very allegro, very defiant) and, presumably, intentions. But in the B section (starting at 5:25), Scherchen is extremely flexible in tempo – stress on “extreme” – changing at times from bar to bar. Though those tempo changes are not prescribed by Mahler, I have nothing against them, first because Mahler himself is reported (by Hermann Martone, violinist of the New York Philharmonic who had played under his baton, interviewed by William Malloch in 1960 on the occasion of the centenary of Mahler’s birth, quoted in Henry-Louis de La Grange) to have possessed above all flexibility, to have claimed a certain freedom in tempo, and to have said something to the effect that the interpreter should take note of the indications of the score, but then play according to feeling (“the difference between freedom and slavery is only a tiny nuance (…). It is precisely what the composer demands! Not the composer, no, but the composition”); and second because Scherchen’s way is very effective: listen how he shapes the phrases to great feeling at 6:44 (“mit grosser Empfindung”, measure 394), then works up the tempo to a great passionate surge for a few bars at 7:10 (measure 409), only to slam the breaks again at 7:22 (measure 418); and this is only one example of his many expressive rubati in this section.

Again the finale will shock those who reject Walter’s 1938 interpretation as “too fast” and unfeeling and who view that finale as the expression of an autumnal leave-taking. Scherchen is even faster than Walter (overall his movement is a couple of minutes longer, but only because he takes the final pages very slowly), and still more flexible in tempo. Understandably, until those final pages, he highlights more the passionate aspect of the movement, playing to the full its “straffer im tempo” (tighter), “etwas drängend” (somewhat pressing), “fliessender” (more flowing) indications more than the “ganz langsam/molto adagio” (very slow) ones, which he always keeps flowing. It takes a change of expectation to fully appreciate what he (like Walter) is doing here: no farewell to the world, but a passionate paean of love to the world. But then, in the final pages, from roughly 14:38 onwards (measure 147), Scherchen fully plays Mahler’s “time suspended” atmosphere, bringing the symphony to a conclusion that would have been even more beautifully appeased if it hadn’t been somewhat marred by poor violin ensemble in the high-pitched ethereal phrases..

Of course the 1950s mono sonics are limitative, the volume is cut way too low on Orfeo’s transfer (I’ve had to crank it up almost twice as high as I usually do) and many instrumental details get lost, particularly the felicitous 1st and 2nd violin antiphony in the outer movements. The orchestra simply can’t follow their conductor’s mad beat, especially in the first movement (Scherchen, quoted in the liner notes, complained about lack of rehearsal time and the orchestra’s hectic schedule, working with him in the morning, Clemens Krauss in the afternoon and Karajan in the evening; but any orchestra would have been strained by such a crazy rush): in the runs the strings scramble to keep roughly together (and the poor ensemble in the ethereal, high-pitched final moments of the is due to no problem of tempo), the brass occasionally hit wrong notes, the cellos forget to enter at one point in the Ländler (the orchestra is much better in the Rondo-Burleske). This is not a version for technical perfectionists, but for amateurs of strong and original conducting personalities.

Despite the orchestra’s poor performance, there is much to value in Scherchen’s interpretation of the last three movements, although much in them is likely to ruffle the feathers of many Mahler fans, especially those not too keen on Walter’s 1938 recording. The opening movement is more problematic. Obviously, it is a reading like no one else’s. Is it true to Mahler’s intentions? I strongly doubt it. Is it valid in its own terms? Appreciation will depend on the value associated to an interpretation being out of bounds. I think most listeners and lovers of Mahler’s 9th will be shocked and will hate it, because it assaults too violently too many listening habits and expectations we have on the music. Reviewing the CD in the January 1991 issue of the French magazine Diapason, Henry-Louis de la Grange loathed all of it (concluding his review with “better laugh than cry”, “mieux vaut en rire qu’en pleurer”), and I am not a bit surprised. But if you value eccentricity and the “alternative” view, you’ll hardly find more eccentric and alternative than this.

Comments are welcome