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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Tuesday September 02 2008

imageI’m listening to the famous Bruno Walter Mahler 9, done in 1938 with the Vienna Philharmonic.  It’s hard not to read all kinds of things into the occasion.  (Although, according to Mark Obert-Thorn, who prepared this particular version of the recording, it may have been two occasions, in the form of two different concerts.) How many Jews were playing in the orchestra?  What happened to them?

After the war, Vienna, and the Vienna Phil in particular, became notoriously anti-Semitic.  While Germans purged themselves of such thoughts, at any rate in any public form, Austrians did seem to care what they said, and this included (includes?) the artistic community, what remained of it.  When Bernstein conducted Mahler in Vienna, he had to really struggle to make them care about it a quarter as much as he did.  But, at least someone asked him to.  How did that happen, I wonder?

Yes.  Here’s what it says on the cover of the recording:

Mahler’s ninth full-scale symphonic work was Das Lied von der Erde, but such was the composer’s superstition that a Ninth Symphony might be his last, following the example of Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner, that he refused to name the work among his symphonies.  Instead his next substantial orchestral work became his Ninth Symphony, a work of awesome scope that remains one of the towering symphonies of the twentieth century.  Mahler did not live to conduct the work, the premiere performance being given by Bruno Walter in 1912.  Astonishingly it was not until 26 years later that Walter made the first of his two recordings of the symphony, although it still stands as one of the most profound performances in recording history.

And here’s the Jewish angle:

Not only is this a unique document of the work’s first interpreter with the first orchestra that ever played it, it is also the swansong of the pre-war Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  Mere weeks after the recording the Nazis invaded Austria and the orchestra was purged of its Jewish members – including Walter.

The blurb ends thus:

The intensity of this extraordinary performance, suffused with the tension inherent both in the work itself and in the contemporary political situation, sweeps all before it.

Well, maybe, but I somewhat prefer what Richard Whitehouse says (click where it says: “About this Recording” - doesn’t seem to work if I merely copy the link in here).  This bit is about the last movement, but in terms of Walter’s general approach it applies to the whole performance:

Again, Walter does not trade on the movement’s emotional reserves as have many more recent conductors, over-anxious to prove it the culmination of Mahler’s creativity, and the apogee of the symphonic tradition itself. A questing, onward motion is maintained through the appearances of the main theme and contrastingly austere episodes. Walter is as mindful to give the heart-easing pastoral interlude its due as surely as he makes the theme’s climactic second return the consummation of the whole symphonic process. The coda has gravitas but no false soul-searching, Walter focusing on the rationality of Mahler’s musical thinking right through to the benediction of the closing bars. It was a benediction that, in the Vienna of January 1938, was to prove tragically short-lived.

“Austere”.  “No false soul-searching”.  Yes. that’s what I heard too, despite all my willingness to hear something more overwrought and Bernsteinian.  In other words, just a very, very good performance.

They did not know then what we know now about what was about to hit them.