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Blu-ray Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #9

Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Recorded Live at the Gewandhaus Leipzig, Germany September 6-8, 2013
Bonus Feature - Riccardo Chailly in conversation with Henry-Louis de La Grange
Accentus Music Blu-ray ACC10299 78m LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
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Also available on DVD ACC20299:
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The Mahler Ninth Symphony is an extraordinarily complex piece of music. Analysis of it could go on for pages, easily filling a sizable volume. Take the first movement exposition, for instance: the main theme group consists of four themes or ideas, and after they are heard in what many might regard as a confusing or haphazard order, we finally get to the second theme. Then there's the gargantuan development section, which is comprised of five parts, the last of which climaxes with blaring, emphatic trombones and tubas playing the off-kilter rhythmic motif heard at the movement's opening, a motif which some have suggested symbolizes Mahler's irregular heartbeat. I should mention here, that Mahler had been diagnosed with a serious heart ailment about two years before composing the symphony. At any rate, there follows an extended reprise and the music then quietly fades. Usually this movement takes a half-hour or so in performance. The middle movements may be a little less complex, but the finale also presents challenges to scholars analyzing its music. But, of course, there's another element here: what does it all mean? Well, we all have heard that Mahler is depicting death or, more properly, life coming to an end. But actually, this judgment has never been sufficiently proven because Mahler did not reveal his chosen intention or message in this work. Still, it does seem obvious that the music is about life ending, not least because of associations in the music with other themes, the most notable being a supposed allusion to Beethoven's Les Adieux (Farewell) Sonata in the first movement's main theme.

I raise these issues to emphasize that this is a very special and very profound work, and any successful performance of it can never sound casual or merely competent. It must sound fully committed, maybe fanatically committed, if that's possible. Orchestras performing it must play almost as if life itself is hanging in the balance. Well, Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra deliver the goods. This performance is committed, desperate, obsessed, powerful, and totally mesmerizing. I have reviewed several previous issues from Chailly's ongoing cycle of Mahler symphonies on video here in the past few years: the Second (Accentus Blu-ray ACC10238), Fifth (Accentus Blu-ray ACC10284), Sixth (Accentus Blu-ray ACC10268), and Eighth (Accentus Blu-ray ACC10222). This Ninth may be the finest performance in what is already one of the most distinguished cycles of Mahler symphonies ever recorded.

Chailly uses very brisk tempos in the Ninth, clocking in at 77:35 in a symphony that typically has a duration of about eighty-five minutes. (Note: the timing for Chailly's finale is given as 29:38 in the album booklet, but the track contains over six minutes of applause at the end.) The first movement is fraught with tension, though the moments of repose in the exposition and reprise are played with great sensitivity and attention to even the minutest detail. After the shattering climax in the opening panel notice how Chailly phrases the return of the main theme: he imparts a sense of volatility with the brass jabs that push the theme further toward agitation and anxiety. The second movement is played with great energy and spirit, with the elements of ecstatic joy, grotesquerie, elegance, desperation and humor coming through in proper measure. What a colorful account of this movement! The somewhat more acidic third movement, or second Scherzo, has plenty of bite and urgency here. It has an almost spastic sort of lurching at times as instruments or groups of instruments seem to jump right out at you. In the faster music everything is busy, pointed and brimming with nervous energy. The sad music midway through has an edge and never sounds relaxed. The finale is stately and funereal, but as with any fine performance of this work, it develops a desperate sense as it builds toward the climax. Afterward Chailly draws from the orchestra a most serene and peaceful ending as the music dies away.

What is odd about the success of this performance is that in the disc's bonus feature discussion with Henry-Louis de La Grange, Chailly expresses disbelief in the view that Mahler is writing about the end of his life in this work. The album notes also argue against this commonly held view. Whatever the case though, this is an utterly riveting Mahler Ninth, conveying all the work's ghostliness and desperation in accurate and spirited playing by one of the world's finest orchestras. The camera work, picture clarity and sound reproduction are first rate.

Chailly may now have entered a rare class of conductors – those mentioned in the company of Walter, Toscanini, Szell, Mravinsky, and Bernstein. Chailly's recent Brahms cycle received nearly unanimous praise from critics across the globe and his Mahler is drawing the same kind of kudos. Though one can obtain other fine Mahler Ninth's from the likes of Walter, Bernstein, Pešek, Giulini, and more recently Barenboim, Nott (Tudor SACD 7162), and Dudamel (Deutsche Grammophon 4790924), this new one by Chailly can easily rank with the finest efforts. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings

Trumpet