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MAHLER, Symphony No.9, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 3 April 2005 (MB)


Mahler’s Ninth is a challenge for any symphony orchestra and conductor, but on this occasion Daniel Barenboim and his Chicago players came well short of recent – or indeed, historical - performance standards. I mention ‘historical’ because in some ways Barenboim’s approach to this symphony, especially in the opening movement, owed much to Bruno Walter and Barbirolli (but without either of their virtues). Both those conductors took the opening movement faster than usual, but in Barenboim’s case speed merely became a barometer for haste rather than architecture. Too often, one sensed that the movement Berg so admired for its clarity and sonata-driven structure was assembled patchwork-like, with the conductor failing to find a unity of purpose behind it. Climaxes appeared as interludes rather than coming from any embryonic argument of what preceded them, and none of this was assisted by the hard-edged, sonically rough Chicago playing. A constant throughout the first movement – but prolonged elsewhere – was an over-bright woodwind – especially from the principal oboe – and the muting of the trumpets and horns prompted some ugly intonation problems. The bassoon solo came across as stringent rather than phrased. The sheer speed at which Barenboim took the movement not only distorted the music, it also tested the virtuosity of his players to an uncomfortable degree. Only at the very end of the movement, in a moment of sublime unison, did the horn (with a miraculous ppp) and oboe close the Andante with exquisite, almost timeless, phrasing.


The second movement fared little better. Mahler’s coarse, even clumsy Ländler (so infrequently taken like that) had neither a rustic charm, nor a remotely Viennese swirl to it. Because Barenboim adopted consistently fast tempi throughout the movement, none of the separate waltzes emerged with any distinctive phrasing: clarinet trills at the opening were as indistinct at the beginning as they became in the transition, the grotesque scherzo which marks the mid-point of the movement – and written in ff – did not register dynamically because of Barenboim’s confusion over the markings preceding it, and the strings never once sounded less than pure (where had the sense of disgust they are supposed to convey disappeared to?) The coda, written as a sombre rephrasing of the dance, felt dissipated as the eerie, ghostly world we should enter into at the movement’s close vanished not into a musical emptiness but a creative emptiness.


With the Rondo-Burlesque, Barenboim and his players hit their stride, although it took its time to come. Barenboim began the movement slightly out of tempo, something which the interlude only emphasized because Barenboim inserted a sudden ritard, but we had to wait until the second episode before the performance hit an entirely different level. Here – finally - Barenboim seemed to acquire a measure of the symphony’s contradictory mood changes. The sudden change to a new world of expressiveness (even though thematically the music remains the same) pre-empted the Adagio with an exquisite awareness for feeling. When the march itself reappeared, taken with a sense of triumph and renewal, though not as wildly as might have been expected given Barenboim’s fusion of the music to extremely fast tempi, clarity from within the orchestra finally opened the performance out of hubris and into spot-lit sensitivity. Whether consciously or otherwise, the often-occluded snare drum had a rattling terror which suggested a conductor perfectly able to bring out orchestral detail.


To a large extent that was exactly what happened in the final movement. Rarely, has an Adagio sounded so full of instrumental detail as it was here, notably before the final climax where the woodwind phrasing was sublimely ignited into a kaleidoscopic roundabout of compositional illumination. The greatness of Mahler as an orchestrator unravelled itself as it so rarely does in a live performance of this symphony. Divided violin desks – one of the real benefits of this performance, despite other shortcomings – came into their own here with Mahler’s string writing emerging intact and renewed. String unity before the return of the Molto Adagio marking was breathtaking in its unison, the long, descending notes bowed to their full length quite magnificently. The coda, evoking the very fine phrasing which had closed the first movement, pushed slowly, though perhaps not always as quietly as it should, to a hushed close. And yet, despite admiration for the playing, and for Barenboim’s ability to tease out so much inner-detail, the whole 27 minutes of his traversal of this movement had left me removed from the music. What should be one of the most life affirming experiences in all music left this reviewer with a profound sense of emptiness.


And in part this is exactly what was wrong with this performance of Mahler’s Ninth. Too often details were opened up at the expense of insight, too often clarity emerged rather than a sense of knowing where the music should be going. This came as a surprise from a conductor who feels such empathy with the human voice, for this is especially what the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth most recalls in its duos and terzets, and what the last movement most needs. One could not help but being disappointed by this concert.


Marc Bridle





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