Mahler’s Ninth Symphony
Music from Wyastone - Studio Concert Series

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Gustav Mahler arr. Klaus Simon  Symphony No.9


English Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Kenneth Woods

About this Concert

The Ninth Symphony was Mahler’s last completed work, and the composer did not live to see it performed. It has since come to be viewed as possibly the Everest of symphonic music. Mahler’s friend, composer Alban Berg, wrote of the piece that “I have once more played through Mahler's Ninth. The first movement is the most glorious he ever wrote. It expresses an extraordinary love of the earth, for Nature. The longing to live on it in peace, to enjoy it completely, to the very heart of one's being, before death comes, as irresistibly it does.”

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About the Arrangement

Arranger and conductor Klaus Simon has made celebrated chamber versions of most of Maher’s music in the spirit of those made in the 1920’s for Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. In the case of the Ninth, he has reduced the forces from the 100 or so in Mahler’s original score to a chamber ensemble comprising solo strings, solo woodwinds, two horns, trumpet, percussion, piano and harmonium. Other than the reduction in forces, Simon’s arrangement neither omits nor alters anything in Mahler’s score.

About the Performance and Premiere

This virtual performance was recorded and filmed in Wyastone Concert Hall near Monmouth 23rd-25th March 2021. It was the first time the orchestra had gathered since November 2020 and the second UK lockdown. The premiere has been scheduled to take place on the 7th July, which marks the 161st anniversary of Mahler’s birth.

"Interpreting the 9th" with Kenneth Woods

Part 1

Part 2

Reviews - 6th July 2021

Richard Whitehouse

The chamber reductions of orchestral works, as pioneered by the Society for Private Musical Performances founded by Schoenberg after the First World War, has gained renewed impetus these past 15 months given the unfeasibility of full-scale performances. Few can have been as ambitious as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – arranged by pianist and conductor Klaus Simon for an ensemble of single strings and woodwind (with doublings), two horns, trumpet, percussion (one player), piano and harmonium; its textural and motivic content thereby remaining intact.

This is evident in the opening Andante, arguably Mahler’s most perfectly realized symphonic movement, whose formal trajectory of interlocking arcs is made explicit so that its long-term expressive intensification and release become no less tangible. To this end, the roles of piano and harmonium are much more than the mere filling-out of texture – respectively articulating and reinforcing the harmonic profile through to a coda which more than usually clinches the overall tonal journey with a serenity the more poignant for its remaining, as yet, unfulfilled.

The ensuing Ländler was no less lucid in terms of its unfolding, Kenneth Woods resisting any temptation to play up the emotional contrasts across a movement whose deceptive blitheness of spirit is only gradually undermined (and a quality this music shares, doubtless unbeknown to the younger composer, with Ravel’s La valse). Equally significant is the way that Simon’s arrangement discreetly emphasizes disparities of timbre and texture, on the way to a closing section where the music only too audibly fragments into a bemused parody of how it began.

More questionable is the Rondo-Burleske – Woods’s underlying tempo for the outer sections, while enabling the music’s contrapuntal intricacy to emerge unimpeded, feeling too dogged to convey its frequently assaultive manner to the degree that the composer surely intended. This is less of an issue in a trio section whose aching regret was potently conveyed, with the stealthy regaining of tension no less in evidence. Animated and accurate, this final section again lacked that seething energy which propels the movement towards its anguished close.

No such questions affect the final Adagio – only equivocally conclusive now that the Tenth Symphony has all but been accepted into the Mahler canon, yet remaining a test of all-round cohesion such as this account rendered with unwavering conviction. Having thus gauged the balance between its alternate paragraphs, Woods assuredly controlled the winding down of tension towards a coda of inward rapture despite its sparseness of gesture – while affording the speculative dialogue between solo strings the necessary temporal and emotional space.

It hardly needs to be said that the playing of this 15-strong ensemble drawn from the English Symphony Orchestra was consistently attuned to the spirit of this music – as, too, is Simon’s methodical and apposite arrangement. Whether such reductions can continue to be relevant in the (presumed) aftermath of the pandemic, it would be a pity were these not to enjoy revival in their own right: revival, moreover, out of aesthetic rather than just didactic considerations, as this impressively conceived and executed rendition demonstrated to often moving effect.

Seen and Heard International - 7th July 2021

Jim Pritchard

Mahler composed his Ninth Symphony during 1909/10 and it was the last symphony that he finished though he never heard it performed. Having recently learnt of his wife Alma’s infidelity, it had a profound effect of the composer’s mental health, and this symphony is considered to be the most intense, self-pitying – possibly neurotic – of all nine he completed. Although it has the traditional number of movements (four) it is unusual because the first and last ones are slow rather than fast.

The symphony opens with a hesitant, syncopated motif (which some commentators – most notably Leonard Bernstein – have suggested represents in music Mahler’s irregular heartbeat) which is to return at the height of the movement’s development and marked within the score ‘with the greatest force’. This is described as a sudden intrusion of death in the midst of life, Moreover, the main theme also quotes – through three descending notes – the opening motif of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.26 ‘Les Adieux’. It means ‘farewell’ and that is what Mahler wrote at this point in his sketch for the music. This piano sonata coincidentally marked a turning point in Mahler’s early musical career as he played it during his graduation recital in college.

The second movement is a Ländler but one that has been distorted to a point where it no longer resembles a dance. It is reminiscent of the second movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony where the traditional dance is turned into a danse macabre (‘dance of death’).

The third movement, in the form of a rondo, displays the ultimate maturing of Mahler’s skills in using counterpoint. It opens with a dissonant theme in the trumpet which is treated in the form of a double fugue. The addition of Burleske (a parody with imitations) to the title of the movement refers to the mixture of all this dissonance with the Baroque counterpoint we are familiar with from Bach. The autograph score is marked ‘to my brothers in Apollo’ and the movement is no doubt intended as a sarcastic and withering response to the critics of his music at the time.

The final movement, marked ‘very slowly and held back’ (zurückhaltend, literally ‘reservedly’), opens for strings only. There is a great similarity in the opening theme to the hymn Abide with Me but most importantly it is a direct quote from the Rondo-Burleske‘s middle section, where it was mocked and derided: here it becomes an elegy. After several impassioned climaxes the music increasingly disassembles and the coda ends quietly, albeit affirmatively. In the closing pages, Mahler also quotes from the fourth song of his Kindertotenlieder where the words are ‘the day is beautiful’. Perhaps he means death is not to be feared, who knows?

The palpable sense of resignation and regret in the Ninth originates not only from Alma’s shenanigans but also because Mahler had been diagnosed with a dodgy heart and Maria, his favourite daughter, had recently died. However, in all the music’s desolation and angst there is often the delicacy of wistful nostalgia and perhaps Mahler is not thinking about his own passing but is using this symphony as a commentary on the end of the previous century and the beginning of the new one. Bernstein posited how the entire last movement symbolically prophesises three kinds of death: Mahler’s own impending death, the death of tonality, and the death of ‘Faustian’ culture in all the arts.

It is important to note that it was in this small orchestral way that many might have heard newly composed music like Mahler’s for the first time in the early twentieth century thanks to Schoenberg and his circle, the Society for Private Musical Performances. Critics were banned (food for thought?) and it gave them an opportunity to hear a first – or more often second – performance of a large orchestral work in a reduced form. It is in the spirit of those performances that arranger and conductor Klaus Simon has made celebrated chamber versions of most of Mahler’s music whilst attempting not to substantially alter or omit anything from the original score. In the case of the Ninth Symphony, in 2011 Simon trimmed the forces required from around 100 to a chamber ensemble (the English Symphony Orchestra list 17!) comprising solo strings, as well as solo woodwinds, two horns, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano and harmonium. (Crucially given its prominence in Mahler’s score the ESO replace the trombone with a third horn.)

The ESO offer in an intriguing 75 minutes which I will happily leave to other listeners to conclude how successful Simon’s reduction is. It is basically the CliffsNotes of this great work and ears used to a full orchestra must accept that the sound is radically different (especially with a piano and harmonium filling it out) and you are hearing the work in a different light. There clearly has been an attempt to create the original soundworld as much as possible but some of Mahler’s effects in this symphony only convince when all the players are playing together. The solo strings – however virtuosic the players (Zoë Beyers, Kate Suthers [violins], Helen Roberts [viola], Joely Koos [cello] and Stephen Warner [double bass]) – are often very exposed and it ends up sounding at times like a string quartet with additional instruments.

Simon’s reduction of Mahler’s Ninth therefore has no low brass, contrabassoon, timpani or harp and that clearly lessened the impact of all the weighty Sturm und Drang and their harmonium and piano replacements are a little overused. There was a resulting gain in clarity and Kenneth Woods’s batonless conducting was unmannered and he was sensitive to the dynamic contrasts, rhythmic fluidity and shifting moods of the music: even if what we heard sounded more episodic than you would expect from the Ninth Symphony, and, for me, some passages had a Gemütlichkeit I associate more with Richard Strauss and his tone poems. Woods knows his Mahler in the minutest detail and has the ability to impart to his musicians the essentials of his interpretation and make them respond spontaneously and enthusiastically. The performance takes off with the quixotic Rondo-Burleske and music that relentlessly builds and builds, whist increasing equally in intensity. Woods and his accomplished musicians bring out all the mournful expressivity that is at the core of concluding Adagio. If such a reflective, deeply sad ending could be said to be satisfying, that’s the word that now seems appropriate.

I spent years as chair of the UK’s Gustav Mahler Society trying – and failing – to arrange something on the scale of this performance, if not bigger, and realise what a difficult task it is, regardless of any pandemic. For that alone this Ninth Symphony from Woods and the ESO deserve respect and the highest praise. I am loath to single out anyone, but the horns and trumpet stood out, as did the string players of course, excellent too were Laura Jellicoe (flute/piccolo) and clarinettists Alison Lambert and Sara Temple who doubled on bass and E-flat instruments with panache.

Adventures In Music - 8th July 2021

Jari Kallio

Released online on the composer’s 161st birthday yesterday, the performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 (1908-09) by the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods is a gripping affair. Recorded at Wyastone Hall, in an excellent ensemble version by Klaus Simon, the downscaled symphony comes off remarkably well, with utmost intensity and fine detail.

While the vast symphony was the last one Mahler’s finished in full score, it was not heard in concert in the composer’s lifetime. The symphony was eventually premiered on 26 June 1912, a year after Mahler’s passing, with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Cast in four movements and lasting circa eighty minutes, the symphony is staggering in its conception and emotional scope. The overall form is quite unusual, with two slow movements framing a pairing of Scherzo and Rondo-Burleske, constituting a symphonic arch somewhat akin to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (1893).

The Andante comodo opening movement is a gigantic entity in itself; almost thirty-minute symphonic canvas, hovering at the brink of disintegration. The music is slow to take shape, as the fragmented opening gestures gradually build up to melodic lines and harmonic progressions, only to fall apart again. This unique musical narrative is absolutely enthralling, as Mahler summons striking continuity out of his seemingly disjointed ingredients.

Although originally scored for a large orchestra, the opening movement is almost thoroughly chamber music, written for a multitude of smaller ensembles within the symphonic line-up. Only rarely does the full orchestra come together in brief tutti passages, often dramatically cut short by the composer. Thus, the music lends itself quite naturally to chamber orchestra, especially when reduced as brilliantly as in Simon’s edition.

In its chamber ensemble guise, the music is rescored for sixteen musicians; solo winds and trumpet, two horns, piano, harmonium, percussion and a string quintet. Even though the large orchestra sonorities are lost, astounding array of colour and texture prevails. Piano and harmonium parts are exquisite in generating some orchestral appeal, while the solo lines convey Mahler’s contrapuntal textures with shattering intensity.

The musical architecture is well taken care of by Woods, as the opening movement unfolds in its multi-layered hue. The ESO players deliver a reading of utmost musicality and admirable clarity, giving rise to an absolutely captivating experience.

The second movement, Im Tempo des gemächlichen Ländlers, is a surreal, fifteen-minute scherzo. Marked Etwas täppisch und sehr derb, the music adopts a sardonic tone, one of a dreamscape constantly collapsing into nightmarish vistas. An dance of death, perhaps, the movement is skillfully transformed into its ensemble guise by Simon. Retaining the eerie aura of Mahler’s original writing, Woods and the members of ESO provide an aptly grotesque reading, saluting the composer’s hair-raising vision with dedicated virtuosity and utmost sensitivity.

Following the rustic Ländler, a heated Rondo-Burleske ensues. Here the sonic difference between the large orchestral score and the chamber adaptation is probably the most striking, as the massed weight of the original gives way to more translucent retelling of the musical narrative. However, this is no discredit to Simon’s wonderful edition not to the extraordinary ESO and Woods performance. Rather, it is merely a notion that the movement is relocated from the main street to the alleyways; an urban narrative told from a different point of view.

In any case, the Rondo-Burleske is marvellously served by ESO and Woods, who provide an almost cinematic take on the score, vivid in its dramaturgy, abundant in its astonishing instrumental detail. The musical tensions are conveyed with heated dedication, giving rise to an unforgettable thirteen-minute tableau of shades and long shadows, with impassioned climaxes and telling silences.

In the concluding Adagio, symphonic gestures are reworked by Mahler into a twenty-minute final resignation for the symphony. Heart-piercing in its longing and sorrow, the music adopts a deeply moving tone in its intimate ensemble setting. A mixture of gorgeous solo playing and seamless teamwork, the ESO and Woods performance is awash with notable detail, constituting an architectural entity of gripping power and sonic beauty.

True to Mahler’s symphonic blueprint and orchestral spirit, the ensemble adaptation is both an organic reflection of the composer’s original as well as a terrific instrumental work of its own merit. The performance is one to cherish, providing a perfect way to cherish the legacy of one of the most extraordinary composers in history, whose time did indeed come to stay.

Production Information

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 23rd-25th March 2021

Producer: Phil Rowlands
Videographer: Tim Burton
Orchestra Manager: Simon Brittlebank / The Music Agency
Stage Manager: Ed Hayes / The Music Agency