Mahler that dares to be different

At a time when classical music is mired in politically correct mediocrity this new recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony comes as a revelation. In partnership with the Foundation Euregio Kulturzentrum Toblach the Gustav Mahler Academy has created an instrument collection for the Originalklang-Project (original sound project) for which the instruments of the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra around 1910 have been meticulously reconstructed. The Foundation purchased wind and percussion-instruments and restored them or, in a few cases, had exact copies made. Gut strings are used and players adapt their techniques to the conventions of the time. 

Conductor and artistic director of the ‘Originalklang’ project Philipp von Steinaecker was mentored by Claudio Abbado and as cellist is a founding member of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. He has played principal cello with the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique and worked as an assistant for Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The forty-five students of the Gustav Mahler Academy were chosen from more than 800 applicants to play with professionals from leading orchestras including the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Staatskapelle Dresden, Wiener Symphoniker, and Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Guidance on period performance style was given by Professor Clive Brown of Leeds University, an authority on Classical and Romantic performing practice.

In 1973 I was fortunate to attend Bruno Maderna's valedictory Proms performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, and that transcendent interpretation has been the yardstick by which I measure all others. As I have written before 'greatest performance' and other subjective measures are meaningless, what matters is does it have integrity and relevance? Maderna, Walter, Barbirolli, Haintink and other greats pass the Mahler Nine integrity test with flying colours, and despite flaunting any celebrity credentials Philipp von Steinaecker is right up there with them. This would be a no-brainer recommendation ignoring the period instrument component. But the lack of vibrato, the liberal use of rubato, and the sheer guts added to the sound by the period instruments adds, rather than detracts, from both the emotional and visceral power of the music.

Much credit goes to the independent and innovative Alpha Classics label under the umbrella of Outhere Music for backing this project. Recording venue was the Gustav-Mahler-Saal Kulturzentrum in Toblach Italy where Mahler composed the symphony. Credit also to producer Marion Schwebel and engineer Christian Starke for the sound which, unlike so many recent recordings and broadcasts,  combines a realistically distant soundstage with great clarity, and refuses to compromise on dynamic range . Kudos also to Alpha Classics for excellent recording documentation and graphics on the CD release - yes, there is some terrible Mahler Nine artwork elsewhere.  

But there is another reason why the Originalklang project is so important. Without compromising integrity it questions some of the traditions and dogma which straitjacket classical music. Forget the original sound and period instrument labels.  Philipp von Steinaecker and the Gustav Mahler Academy have dared to be different and challenged sonic preconceptions. The difference may be nuanced but it is there and it is very successful. It may be one small step forward, but audience expectations, particularly with regard to sound, are changing. The purist classical music community can learn a lot from the original sound project about how to be more broad-minded about sonic and other change.


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