Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 9 (1909-10)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. live, 22 March 2009, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. DDD

Esa-Pekka Salonen became the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor in September 2008. In his first season with the orchestra he devised an ambitious exploration of the music and culture of Vienna between 1900 and 1935 under the title City of Dreams. Though I can’t see it stated explicitly in the booklet, I imagine that the concert at which this recording was made took place as part of that nine-month-long festival.

Salonen has impressive credentials as a conductor of the music of that period – and not just Viennese music – and, indeed, he really made his mark as a conductor back in 1983 when he stepped in at very short notice to conduct the Philharmonia in Mahler’s Third Symphony. The Ninth is a very different proposition from the huge, all-embracing Third and I was very interested to hear how Salonen would approach it.

I have some twenty recordings of this magnificent symphony in my collection and this is different to all of them in what I think I should call its lightness of touch. I should say straightaway that those who want this symphony to sound angst-ridden should probably look elsewhere. Salonen has a very different perspective on the work. In the booklet there’s a quote from Alban Berg, who had this to say. ‘The first movement is the most glorious he ever wrote. It expresses an extraordinary love of this earth, for Nature; the longing to live on it in peace, to enjoy it completely, to the very heart of one’s being, before death comes, as inevitably it does.’ In the hands of many interpreters much of this ambitious, searching creation is an anguished outburst, though, of course, it has more tranquil stretches too. Salonen adopts a fairly flowing tempo at the start and in the first few minutes he brings out a gentle lyricism in the music. He also cultivates a transparency of texture that permeates much of the performance as a whole.

All this is well and good but as the movement progresses and we come to some of the more emotionally charged passages I began to feel a lack of grit in the interpretation. In some ways it’s a refreshing change not to hear the music delivered – or, by some conductors, over-delivered - with white-hot emotion but, well though the Philharmonia plays, I missed the requisite degree of bite in the playing. I suppose the clinching thought for me as the movement drew to a close was that it had lacked the appropriate intensity. I don’t want hysteria in Mahler but here, though there was much to admire, I felt somewhat short-changed emotionally.

The author of the booklet note, Julian Johnson, has a wonderful phrase for the opening pages of the ländler, which he describes as a “rustic cartoon.” But Salonen’s rather cultured way with the music doesn’t really bring out any exaggerated, humorous element in the music; it’s rather polite. His tempi are often fleet and often I felt a lack of bite – that word again! – and weight.

Should not the Rondo-Burleske snarl? I think it should and I’m afraid it doesn’t here. The playing is precise and, despite the often-teeming detail on the orchestral canvass Salonen achieves an admirable clarity of texture. But I missed what Julian Johnson aptly refers to as the “sense of distortion and exaggeration”. The slower nostalgic, trumpet-led episodes are beautifully played but, because what has gone before hasn’t been as intense as one is used to hearing, Salonen doesn’t achieve sufficient contrast when he gets to these nostalgic pages. From 10:20 the final whirlwind appearance of the rondo material has more bite but even so it lacks the venom that many other conductors have found in these pages.

It is in the final great adagio that Salonen’s cultivated approach pays dividends. I hear a nobility in his reading – though perhaps not as much nobility as there is in Giulini’s Chicago recording for DG – and he could not be accused of wearing his heart on his sleeve. The extended climax, from 13:10, is powerful though I have heard more intensity from others in these pages. The end of the movement, from 17:41 – and especially after 19:30 – brings calm acceptance and the playing here is very beautiful and controlled. Gradually the music dies away on ever-diminishing threads of sound and, even through headphones, the sound at the very end is on the edge of audibility. That’s most impressive in a live concert performance. Signum include a lengthy period of silence after the music has died away and, rightly on this occasion, there is no disturbing applause.

Salonen offers an interesting perspective on the symphony, though it’s far from a complete view, I’d suggest. Whilst I may return to it once in a while for its different approach I think that the likes of Barbirolli, Bernstein and Rattle (his Berlin recording) to name the conductors of but three rival versions, deliver far more and a much more rounded picture of this unsettling and profoundly moving symphony. The recorded sound is good.

John Quinn

An interesting perspective on this deeply moving symphony: but other interpreters offer much more.