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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1909) [89:49]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Rec: Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 14-18 June 2004. DSD
DECCA 475 6191 DSA2 [2 SACDs: 30:29 + 59:20]

With this release Riccardo Chailly reaches the end of at least one musical journey, possibly two. I think this is the final release in his slowly-evolving cycle of the Mahler symphonies with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. I am certain that it marks the end of his tenure as their principal conductor. Indeed, it was with this very work that he said farewell to Amsterdam earlier this year in concerts around the time this recording was made, after sixteen years in the job.

Actually, I had missed most of this recorded cycle until, by chance, a friend lent me his copy of Chailly’s recording of the Third a couple of months ago. That recording impressed me a lot. True, the performance didn’t quite sweep all before it as do those by Jascha Horenstein and Leonard Bernstein (his earlier, New York recording) in their different ways. However, I found Chailly’s Third thoroughly musical and attentive both to detail and to the overall structure of the work. It was also superlatively played by his Dutch orchestra and stunningly recorded by Decca. All these comments apply equally, to this account of the Ninth.

This is actually one of the broadest-conceived readings of the symphony that I’ve heard. Notice that I didn’t say "slowest". At times the speeds are slower than those adopted by other interpreters but in this context the use of the word "slowest" might have pejorative overtones, which I don’t intend.

Chailly’s broad tempi are most noticeable in the first and last movements. In his hands the first movement lasts 30’29". The only conductors that I know of who match this are Klaus Tennstedt in his dark 1979 traversal (EMI) at 30’48" and Jascha Horenstein’s live 1966 reading on BBC Legends (29’55"). Otherwise between 27 and 28 minutes seems about par for the course, except for Bruno Walter’s legendary 1938 Vienna recording where the movement flashes by at white hot speed and is over in 24’47." For much of the time I think Chailly justifies his tempi and, of course, there are a good range of speeds marked in the score at various junctures by Mahler. However, there are passages, such as the brief section from 11’20" and 11’49" here, where I would have welcomed a bit more energy and drive. One section (17’00" – 18’38") is very slow indeed and I began to wonder if the forward pulse had been lost.

However, there are many pluses to set beside these minuses. Immediately after the section I’ve just mentioned the tempo picks up (until 20’03") and Chailly handles this section splendidly. The recording reports the timpani thrillingly at the start of this episode. That passage culminates in the massive return of the crucial doom-laden syncopated figure on the heavy brass. Chailly makes this as telling a moment as he should. There’s lots to admire in the performance of this movement - the greatest and intellectually most stretching in all Mahler? - but I do sometimes miss the sense of abandon and turbulence that is conveyed by the likes of Karajan (his live 1982 reading) or Bernstein (his 1979 performance also live and also with the Berlin Philharmonic). In his perceptive and illuminating notes the distinguished Mahler scholar, Donald Mitchell tellingly labels this movement "a graphic and exhausting depiction of catastrophe." Chailly fails to quite convey this. However, his reading has grip, it is thoroughly musical and it is quite clearly the result of a considerable amount of deep reflection. In summary, I admire his achievement in this movement even if I don’t agree with every detail of his vision. He clarifies all the many and complex strands of the argument very well.

The ending (from 26’35") is marvellous – the low bassoons sound wonderful at this point. The closing pages are played with a breathtaking pianissimo. At this point in the music all passion is spent and Chailly and his forces convey this admirably.

I’ll deal more briefly with the middle two movements. The Ländler is splendidly done. Every detail and nuance is laid out clearly but not pedantically for the listener. In particular the tangy, characterful playing of the woodwind choir is marvellous. The Rondo-Burleske is a nightmarish movement. At the start and finish the Concertgebouw brass snarl, the strings dig deep and the woodwind chatter and shriek. At 6’05" Mahler enters a different world, introducing the slower central episode where the music is led by a silvery, shining trumpet. It’s mainly an achingly nostalgic interlude, which presages the closing Adagio, as Donald Mitchell reminds us in his note. This whole passage is eloquently realised by Chailly and his players. At 11’04" the manic rondo returns and the spirited, virtuoso playing here conjures up aural images of gargoyles, goblins and gorgons.

And so to the wonderful finale. Chailly’s treatment won’t be to all tastes. I mean it as a compliment when I say that I have never heard the movement sound so much like a Bruckner adagio. At 28’24" Chailly’s reading is easily the broadest that I know. By comparison Karajan requires 26’49", Bernstein 26’12", Horenstein 26’50" and Barbirolli in his great 1964 Berlin recording (EMI) 22’57". Once again Walter is easily the swiftest. His reading lasts just 18’20". All these are marvellous accounts in their different ways. So too, I venture to suggest, is Chailly’s. His is a magnificent, dignified conception. Apart from anything else, the broad treatment of the music demands enormous concentration on the part of the performers. It also requires an orchestra of the class of the RCO. The strings and horns are the key to this movement and collectively they cover themselves with glory.

Initially I was concerned by the generous tempo but Chailly’s approach is a compelling one and it wasn’t long before I was convinced. The nobility that he finds in the music imparts a degree of consolation that I find very moving. The playing is eloquent and controlled. The extended climax (15’48" – 17’53") is powerful but not overwhelming. The passage that immediately follows (to 19’18") is deeply expressive, the playing crowned by glorious, rich horn tone.

The final pages (from 22’00") are withdrawn and spiritual. Time seems to stand still as the strings play with a breathless hush. If the pianissimo at the end of the first movement was superfine then here the Dutch players surpass even that. It is as if they barely dare to play. Yet play they do and with a rapt, hushed intensity. As the final phrases are whispered an especially moving ambience is created. I felt it was rather an intrusion even to be writing listening notes at this point. The last notes die away and the rest is silence.

How to sum up this performance? For me the first movement doesn’t quite catch fire. The two middle movements are superb and the finale wonderful in its own terms – but it’s a controversially broad reading which won’t be to all tastes As a whole I don’t think this recording of the symphony surpasses in my affections or estimation the superb recordings by Barbirolli, Bernstein or Karajan that I’ve already mentioned. Walter is, of course, sui generis. Yet Chailly’s is a deeply impressive achievement that commands respect. In some quarters it will be controversial, I’m sure, and I couldn’t honestly recommend it as the definitive library choice ... if such a thing exists. However, it’s a performance that all lovers of Mahler should try to hear.

I’ve already praised several times the playing of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra whose members turn in a performance fully worthy of the orchestra’s unique Mahler tradition. The Decca engineers have done them proud, recording the symphony in sound of stunning realism and with a very musical balance. There’s an abundance of detail but no artificial and unmusical spotlighting. I should warn listeners that the recording has a very wide range indeed and if the volume control is set to the quietest passages then possibly the climaxes will be uncomfortable. I only listened in conventional CD format. Goodness knows how impressive the recording will sound on SACD equipment. I’ve also mentioned Donald Mitchell’s notes, which are exemplary and thought-provoking.

So Riccardo Chailly signs off from Amsterdam and Mahler in some style. This is a fitting souvenir of his work with the RCO. Mahler’s Ninth has been lucky on record. Here is another distinguished addition to the discography of that symphony.

John Quinn

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