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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D (1909-10) [81:56]
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, 22 May 2014 and in rehearsal, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
HALLÉ CDHLD7541 [43:56 +38:09]

We’ve had many fine recordings of English music from Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé but I think this is their first recorded excursion into the music of Mahler.

I’ve heard Mahler’s Ninth on many, many occasions and I’ve lost count of the number of recordings I possess but David Matthews’ booklet note proves that you can always learn something new. He makes the point that the magnificent first movement has a similar plan to that of the vast finale of the Sixth in that it is punctuated by three huge climaxes which parallel the three hammer blow climaxes in the Sixth. That’s such an obvious point on reflection that I’m cross with myself that I’ve never noticed it before. Mahler removed the third hammer blow but even without it that triple-climax structure remains in place.

In this new Hallé performance those three climaxes are towering peaks in the geography of a very fine and convincing reading of the movement. This first movement is, I believe, one of Mahler’s greatest achievements and Elder and his orchestra are fully up to the manifold technical, intellectual and emotional challenges that it poses. The music encompasses a wide range of emotions -from bittersweet regret to powerfully articulated tragedy - and it’s all here in Elder’s reading. He seems to me to have a very sure grasp of the structure of the movement too and his understanding of Mahler’s thoughts means that he can convey the full stature of this amazingly rich and complex composition. The orchestra responds to his direction with animated playing and also with considerable finesse in the more delicate episodes. Tension is maintained throughout, including during the quieter passages where, ostensibly, Mahler relaxes a bit. The bittersweet, drained music of the long coda – “imbued with exquisite regret”, as David Matthews puts it – is beautifully managed and voiced.

I like Elder’s tempo for the first of the Ländler in the second movement; it’s sturdy but by no means stolid as I’ve experienced with one or two other conductors. The playing of the Hallé is pointed, pithy and well-articulated throughout the movement and Mahler’s music, which is often deliberately gawky, is strongly profiled. The vivid, garish Rondo-Burleske is given a pungent, trenchant performance. The shining, silvery trumpet of Gareth Small initiates most appealingly the warm D major central section; in fact, Small’s contribution in particular offers a strong suggestion that here Mahler has gone back briefly to the world of the Adagio finale of his Third Symphony. This section is radiantly done but it’s not long before the grotesque, ribald Rondo returns. Hereabouts the orchestral virtuosity is all the more apparent after the calm of the central section and nowhere more than in the scalding last few pages.

The strings are warmly consoling at the start of the finale, which is cast in the rich and remote key of D-flat major. The intervening spectral ohne Empfindung passages are, rightly, as expressionless and wan as Mahler’s instruction demands; these episodes are bare and gaunt, as they should be. Each time the string hymn resumes we seem to be back once again in the last movement of the Third; however here Mahler’s music is more searching and more ambitious in its emotional reach than was the case in the Third – and it’s forward-looking too, towards what was to be the Tenth. The Hallé’s playing in this movement is very fine and also dedicated and there’s much excellent solo work to admire from the woodwind principals and from leader, Lyn Fletcher. The build-up to the climax (from 14:19) is urgent and when that climax is attained (15:12) it’s admirably impassioned in tone. The ardent passage thereafter is distinguished in particular by some marvellous playing by the horn section. The protracted ‘lebewohl’ (from 20:28) is delivered with the utmost refinement and sensitivity by Elder and his players. The hushed intensity and delicacy with which the exquisitely tender final pages are played is a triumph for the Hallé strings. Mercifully, no applause is suffered to intrude on the intimacy of the end.

This is a distinguished Mahler Ninth. There have been so many fine recordings of this symphony, many of them listed in our Masterworks Index, that it would be a braver – or more rash – person than me who would propose a “best buy”. What I can safely say, however, is that this new recording from Manchester deserves to be ranked among the finest. I do hope that that distinguished Mahler advocate, the late Michael Kennedy, was present to hear this performance; I feel he would have rejoiced to hear this great symphony so splendidly presented by the orchestra of which he was such a longstanding supporter.

The recording reproduced very well indeed on my equipment and David Matthews’ notes are knowledgeable and informative.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson & Dominy Clements



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