Jeremy Lee writes
Do you have an insatiable urge for raw power? Do you adore violence and carnage? Are you unfazed by extreme vulgarity? Are Bernstein’s performances too frail and weak for you? If you answered any of the above with “yes”, you’ve come to the right place: Solti’s first Mahler 3rd with the London Symphony Orchestra. If Bernstein is the poised Ferrari 599 of Mahler 3rds, Solti’s is a quad-supercharged, fire-spurting, bright green Lamborghini Aventador with silly spoilers everywhere.
Recorded in 1967, it’s simply the most nerve-wrackingly crushing performance out there. Check out the first movement and tell me where else you can find such raunchy brass playing. The fairly terrifying trombone solo (I pray for the trombonist’s health!) in particular has a sort of granite tone that you won’t find anywhere else. Just hearing the exposition had me perched on the edge of my seat, feeling terribly intimidated. All hell breaks loose in the development as the London brass blare their way through the unhinged vulgarity Mahler throws at them, offering a showcase of the most virtuosically rude and fierce playing you can possibly find. And the coda is a total hoot, leaving me yelping with excitement. The low percussion and strings are very prominent, adding to the risqué-ness of Solti’s approach. Maybe it’s the miking, which seems very close to the orchestra. Or maybe it’s really the Londoners who play as though they had no morals whatsoever.
Thankfully, after this bloody battle, the second movement Solti gives us is graceful and charming (though the 3/8 episodes could really benefit from lighter playing), a badly-needed respite, though a short-lived one as the scherzo that follows is, if anything, as terrifying and nasty as the first movement. The posthorn solo is hardly a relief: it has a menacing vibrato and sounds as though placed directly in front of the microphone—certainly not off-stage as Mahler wanted. Must the whole forest be filled only with tigers and lions and deadly vipers?
The fourth movement, at last, settles down considerably, and contralto Helen Watts delivers some beautifully concentrated singing. Her singing also holds up well in the fifth movement, but the children and women’s choir sound as if they were shouting (lots of tape saturation too!), and the playing is, well, all power and no exuberance. As for the great finale: it’s 19 minutes long, one of the fastest finales ever, and whether you appreciate this pacing is entirely subjective. I, for one, feel that it’s too rushed, and as you would expect the brass overpowers everything, making it sound like a battle hymn instead of a hymn of divine love. However it seems to be coherent with Solti’s high-nerved conception of the piece, so I don’t have too large of a reservation.
In short, it’s a ferocious and vulgar performance that isn’t for everyone—I personally like it a lot, but as always, your mileage may vary. At any rate Solti’s digital remake with the Chicago Symphony sports more refined playing, a wider palate of emotions (as opposed to power, power and more power), and much more reined-back brass (though still powerful by any standard—it’s the CSO), so if I were to recommend a Solti Mahler 3rd, the CSO version would be it. Still, this LSO performance is something special that deserves to be heard—if only by gutsy listeners.
- Album name: Mahler: Symphony No. 3
- Performers: Helen Watts (contralto); Georg Solti (conductor); Ambrosian Chorus; Boys from Wandsworth School; London Symphony Orchestra
- Label: Decca 414 254-2
- Sonics: Stereo ADD
- Total playing time: 93:46