Jeremy Lee writes
Before I start my verdict, I’d like you to read Maazel’s own words on what he believes Mahler 3 is.
Read that? I have to say, hand on heart, that I couldn’t agree more with Maazel. According to him, Mahler’s massive 3rd symphony is full of the sounds of nature and lots of tongue-in-cheek material that could be so badly underplayed in a performance. Maddening contrasts wreak havoc with almost outrageous vulgarity, but on the other end of the scale we have innocence, sweetness, the goodness and meaning of life, even. Maazel’s conception of the work, if what he says in this interview is true to him, seems to be able to touch all the bases of what Mahler 3 is about, especially when he has at his disposal the forces of the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world’s greatest orchestras. Sadly, Maazel couldn’t be more accurate about the futility of verbalizing music, something he ironically did here. What Maazel conceives and what really comes out is…rather different.
The first movement starts off rather well, with the distant, dark horns announcing a very serious and granite-like exposition. The trombone solo has an air of solemnity you’ll struggle to find in other recordings. But when the moments of contrast come, everything falls apart. The slow tempo is not the problem: it’s the darkness and melancholy permeating through what is supposed to be pure joy and humor. The second theme (the march theme in F major) sports some very beautiful, polished playing, but what’s the use when it’s almost monochrome? Nothing, though, is more disastrous than the development. Try finding a sense of abandon or spontaneity here: it’s easier to split the atom. Everything is measured to a mannered degree. In the wild rabble section, show me any vitality or color besides light grey, grey, dark grey and deep grey and I’ll show you Klemperer doing the cha-cha while wearing a clown-hat. (Not only that: there’s a preposterous mistake in bar 618 where the trumpets play a whole bar earlier than they are supposed to—a terrible shame.) And the coda, needless to say, is a complete sleepwalk.
This tedium extends way into the second movement, which holds up somewhat fine in the main sections but in the 3/8 episodes suffers from little bite or contrast, and the characteristic sound of the rute is nowhere to be heard. Happily Maazel and his forces wake up at last in the third movement, giving us a performance that is alert and multihued albeit not terribly special or intense like Levine’s or Solti’s (the trumpets misread a few notes as well—they must have had a terrible day), and the posthorn solo is as dream(r)y as one could wish for. The fourth movement benefits from the same glumness that made the corresponding bits of the first movement agreeable, and Baltsa’s voice is lovely here. But comes the fifth movement, wrapped in a cloud of miasma, and immediately all that golden sparkle from the “bimm, bamm” of the children’s voices are gone. Baltsa’s voice sounds way too mature for all the exuberance the movement should create—and by “should”, I mean “should”, because everyone sounds etiolated, from the lackluster boys’ choir to the equally unenthusiastic women. The last flute note, extending all the way to the end but without softening, wears on the ear.
At last, there’s the great adagio finale. Maazel’s unhurried pace, at 29 minutes, wouldn’t have been a terribly big problem hadn’t it been for the complete indifference Maazel generates, a prosaic, comatose lecture through one of Mahler’s grandest and most heartfelt meditations, in this instance of divine love. The string hymn that opens the movement is mannered and square, the sudden rushes of minor-keyed passion impatient stabs. At the end, the timpani are so aggressive they make no musical sense, and what’s up with the cymbals? They sound like someone sneezed into the microphone! It is a beautiful movement annihilated by total apathy. It is an absolute disgrace and musical assault. The coupling, Kindertotenlieder, is fine though utterly uneventful, and have you heard Ludwig/Karajan?
The performance of the symphony, then, holds some sort of perverse interest in the sense that the outer the movement gets, the worse it becomes. However, the sonics are much more consistent, always rather hazy and ill-balanced towards the strings, and rendering the harp (a sine qua non in the first and third movements!), horns and most of the percussion much less audible than they should be. But that’s a tiny problem in relation to the massive awfulness of the two most substantial cores in the symphony, the first and last movements. To be fair, Maazel’s abovementioned interview was much more recent than this 1985 performance, and hopefully his latest New York Philharmonic performance will show at least some of his conception. As for this performance: in all truthfulness, even Wit and his Polish forces on Naxos are better (though that certainly doesn’t deserve reference status), and given that we have such distinguished musicians at the helm of this recording, it’s downright disappointing and simply one of the most dismal Mahler 3rds we have on the market today. (Really, if anyone made their point that the Viennese don’t have a clue how Mahler should sound like with this recording, I’d believe them! Thankfully, many other recordings prove otherwise.) An utter waste of time, and certainly a recording to avoid.
- Album name: Mahler: Symphony No. 3; Kindertotenlieder
- Performers: Agnes Baltsa (mezzo-soprano); Lorin Maazel (conductor); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
- Label: Sony Essential Classics SB2K89893
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 137:48