Mahler: Symphony No 9 in D minor, New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur, Barbican 11 June 2000 (MB)
Mahler's Ninth can be admired on many levels but Kurt Masur's performance with the New York Philharmonic presented some unusual difficulties.
On the one hand, this was a performance which didn't quite gel as a complete vision of the work. The vast first movement was beautifully held together but the overall tempo was perhaps too fast, with the cumulative power, which is so entrenched within this glorious movement, perhaps not as mighty and forbidding as one might have expected. The second movement Ländler was idiosyncratic with many wild and grotesque touches simply not indicated in my copy of the score, and there was an almost catastrophic moment at the great climax of the Adagio (m.122, just before Tempo I) when the first violins were playing a combination of up and down bow simultaneously. However, this was also a wonderfully played performance and one is tempted to dismiss these problems to get a better view of the overall picture.
And dismiss them I will. This is the third Mahler 9 I have heard in London this year (the others having been Svetlanov's with the Swedish RSO and Ashkenazy's with the Philharmonia). This New York account was easily the most beautifully played, and ultimately the most moving. This was entirely the achievement of the orchestra - notably from the strings who began to impress in the third movement's shadowy pre-emption of the Adagio's great string tune. Their sweep and depth became instantly apparent. In the Adagio itself they were just glorious - with a wide vibrato producing the most hedonistic and luscious tone. In recent years, I have not even heard the Vienna Philharmonic produce a string sound as wonderful as this (although I will admit that at least one of the New York double basses rattled and vibrated with unfailing regularity).
Perhaps more impressive are the brass and woodwind. The principal horn, Philip Myers, a giant of a man, produced the most beautiful horn playing I have ever heard from an orchestral principal, in any orchestra. There was one minor cracked note at the start of his solo in the Adagio, but beyond this he has immaculate breath control and can sustain effortlessly the most transcendent pianissimo. His use of vibrato produces resplendent tone. He was, deservedly, the first orchestra member to be brought to his feet by Masur. His playing was simply mesmerising. Principal flautist Sarah Church, leading an all female flute section, is another artist of the highest calibre. Her playing in her first movement flute solo was both virtuosic and poetic. This is, without doubt, a superlative orchestra.
Masur should not be entirely dismissed, either. Whilst tempos were controversial in the first three movements he shaped an Adagio that was timeless in its beauty. His control of dynamics, both here and elsewhere in the symphony, were finely judged. Woodwind were never drowned by brass, and the strings were given ample opportunity to weave their opulence. The ending of the symphony was just masterful. Here, string ppp's and pppp's (in the final bars) were magical. There can be no doubt that only a truly great orchestra was at work here.
In terms of orchestral playing, I have not heard a finer concert all year (and that includes concerts given by the LSO, Royal Concertgebouw and the Vienna Philharmonic). Masur has clearly worked wonders with this orchestra - and the audience's endless applause (only terminated by Masur dragging his leader off the stage) suggested we had been listening to something very special indeed.
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