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
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
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.