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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 (1909/10) [72:09]
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedosseyev
rec. live, Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, 5-7 December 2002
RELIEF CR991072 [72:09]



Vladimir Fedosseyev - whose name usually appears transliterated with a single "s", in case you're confused - has sometimes been tagged as, basically, a successful Communist Party hack. Certainly his humdrum, vaguely careless run-throughs of Tchaikovsky symphonies and Russian "pops", in the early-digital, late-Soviet era, afforded little reason to dispute that characterization.
 
But the Mahler Ninth brings the best out of Russian conductors. Kiril Kondrashin's recording (issued on Melodiya/Seraphim LPs, Stateside) was respected if not quite beloved, while Yevgeny Svetlanov's (Saison Russe/Le Chant du Monde) was one of the few bright spots of his mostly coarse, uncomprehending cycle. Now it has drawn the best work I've yet heard from Fedosseyev. If the performance ultimately founders - largely because of a penchant for briskness - it nonetheless scores some incidental points along the way.
 
The start of the performance - recorded in concert, or perhaps in several concerts - sets the tone for what will follow: from the sound of it, Fedosseyev tersely acknowledges the applause, turns to the orchestra, and immediately gives the downbeat. The opening fragments are clearly defined, reasonably piano at a no-nonsense tempo. Of course, Mahler knew what he was about - only the main theme's arrival establishes an audible pulse for the rhythmically displaced motifs - and the conductor can hardly be faulted for allowing the built-in effect simply to happen.
 
Fedosseyev doesn't attempt to wring sentiment from the first theme, preferring a longer view. The climactic fanfares blaze with all the heady vigor of the composer's First Symphony; the straightforward pace brings out an unexpected dance feel - at 4:49, for example, a sort of lopsided waltz briefly emerges - and the rhythm remains solidly grounded as the music hurtles forward (5:32 and following). The arrival of the big moments - the climax at 10:13, the false recapitulation at 14:30, and the real one at 18:04 - is perhaps too matter-of-fact; they're not always set up as one might like. On the other hand, the conductor knits the increasingly knotty strands of string counterpoint into cogent, clear-toned sense: compare Levine (Oehms), who allows the moving parts to interfere with the principal themes; or Masur (Teldec), whose New York Philharmonic strings, at a comparably propulsive tempo, sound comparatively diffuse. After the final anguished tutti outburst, the bare, angular textures beginning at 19:39 are stark and desolate; a certain severity, only briefly leavened by tender lyricism, dominates the closing minutes.
 
In the other movements, problematic tempos and tempo relationships compromise the conductor's musical impulses, despite mostly fine execution. The Ländler's opening theme is brisk to the point of skittishness - listen to the bassoon pickups - but the "in 1" pulse infuses a measure of buoyancy into the peasant-dance step, with the horn trills registering nicely. But the second theme, marked Poco più mosso subito, is only marginally faster - the first tempo didn't leave room for much more, after all. The speed as such is fine, but, given the longer notes, the motion feels like it's getting slower, which can't be right. There is, again, a dance-like lilt when the low brasses take up this theme at 3:16, and Tempo III is relaxed, the rhythms gently pointed.
 
The Rondo-Burleske, bracing but not rushed, begins strongly. The strings dig into their angular lines with a big, buzzy resonance and lots of gusto; the woodwinds are bright and sassy; the brass interjections are full-throated. But Fedosseyev, like Svetlanov, maintains the same basic tempo into the lyric interlude, all but ignoring the indicated Etwas gehalten; the result, especially with the notes in the turns so insistently detached, is prosaic - only at 6:49 does any tenderness or repose come in.
 
Fedosseyev moves the Finale at a 4-to-the-bar Andante rather than the customary 8-to-the-bar Adagio. The opening pages sing with dignity, with the well-balanced string sonority casting the slightly "open" solo horn into sharp relief. But such a forward pace and melodically-based approach, more characteristically Slavic than Germanic, predictably causes some details to misfire. The contrabassoon at 3:21 sounds uncomfortable "speaking", and the second violins can't make sense of the portandos at 16:17. The surprise is how much expression the conductor still manages to draw from the details. The mysterious spareness at 3:30 and 10:02; the fragile sweetness at 8:04 and the woodwinds' melting color change shortly thereafter; the yearning horn solo at 14:05 - all are superbly realized. Towards the end of the movement, fatigue sets in - witness the principal trombone's "clam" at 14:37 and the tentative, sometimes blurry string playing in the quiet closing pages - though the audience was clearly appreciative nonetheless.
 
Another surprise is that the orchestral sound, for better and worse, isn't particularly "Russian". The string tone is lean, lacking the heavy-syrup vibrancy of yore - a casualty of post-Communist emigration, perhaps - but accurate tuning certainly helps clarify the contrapuntal bits. The horns are oddly sour at 10:17 of the first movement, and a single cellist enters a beat early at 12:46 of the Ländler. Against these passing flaws, muted trombones snarl with firm, weighted tone at 12:49 in the first movement and elsewhere, high clarinet solos are superbly controlled, and timpani are crisp and focused. The ensemble sound is polished - far more so than that of Svetlanov's Russian State Symphony - and full-throated in tutti; discipline is excellent until fatigue sets in.
 
I can't recommend this as a first - or only – Ninth. It strays too far from the score's prescriptions to represent it properly. Still, it's well worth a hearing - not least as a document of how styles of playing and interpretation are changing in the former Soviet bloc - and it's persuasive on its own terms.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta

 


 


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