Mahler Symphony No. 9 Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Yevgeny Svetlanov, Royal Festival Hall 28 January 2000
Of all Mahler's symphonies, it is the Ninth that allows us to experience Mahler in the most emotional of terms. Yevgeny Svetlanov's performance of this titanic work was partly successful in this respect, the final moments of the symphony with its solitary cello and suspended breath of violins and violas, profoundly moving. But the Ninth is more than just this moment of resolution, and one was left with the feeling that this Ninth was very much a performance of two halves.
The first movement has been described by Berg as amongst the most perfect of any symphonic work. For Svetlanov this seemed too much of a burden and the weight of his conception almost collapsed under the monumentalism of Mahler's achievement. The work failed to unfold as it should, the burgeoning competition between the subliminal harmonies and complex dissonance making for an unresolved tension. This was highlighted (perhaps even exacerbated) by some very odd dynamics, with brass playing that rarely sounded lower than ffff and woodwind playing of almost Viennese acidity. It appeared excessively Russian, and this was reinforced in the second movement Ländler. This was suitably grotesque, the grimness of the waltz nicely conveyed, but in substance it sounded over-pedantic.
From the third movement onwards this performance touched real greatness. The Rondo Burlesque is one of Mahler's most extraordinary inventions and in very few performances has it sounded both so chaotic and so thrilling. Svetlanov's pace was electrifying and burned like an inferno almost out of control. The Swedish players had problems matching their conductor's fiery direction with instruments scattered like fallen soldiers across the battlefield of Mahler's score. The interlude which prefigures the Adagio touched the sublime and promised much.
That promise was more than fulfilled in a final movement of unusual gravity and beauty. The textures were rich, the brush-strokes applied with genius. The strings played with a nobility and opulence that was quite boundless, their sound at times veering between the twin worlds of passion and total desolation just as Mahler must have intended. The great climax had sweep, and when the violins descended into their chorale the effect was little short of magical. The ending was as rapt as it was devoid of emotion. It ended in silence and withdrawal. It ended in peace.
It ended up a great Mahler Nine.
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays Mahler's Ninth under Yevgeny Svetlanov on Jan 31st at City Hall, Newcastle, on Feb 2nd at Symphony Hall, Birmingham and on 3 Feb at Colston Hall, Bristol.
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