Mahler’s Ninth is probably not one of those works you’re going to put on to help you get through the washing up. Booking for a concert performance leads to a delicious feeling of anticipation, and even listening to it at home involves making a decision and doing a bit of planning. Looking back, I don’t seem to have heard the work for some four years, when I listened to the DG recording from the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myung-Whun Chung, an impressive performance that nonetheless left me wanting a little more. Now here it is again, this extraordinary masterpiece, in a performance from an orchestra based in Essen, an industrial town in Western Germany about the size of Manchester. Czech conductor, Tomáš Netopil, has been Music Director of the Essen Philharmonic Orchestra since 2013. Together, they turn in a performance of the Ninth that is more than worthy of a place in any decent Mahler collection.
There is a kind of expectant indifference about the opening of the symphony in this performance, and the first theme is stated simply and without excessive emotion. As early as the first climax it is clear that Netopil’s view of the work is to be quite different from that of Leonard Bernstein, either in New York (Sony) or Amsterdam (DG). That master’s tendency to prolong climactic up-beats in an extreme, and, some might think, excessive fashion is quite absent here. The wilder passages of this monumental first movement do not have the frenzy Bernstein brought to them either, but this is no bad thing, as a work as extensive and all-compassing as this one can take any number of approaches. It would be curious to hold on to set ideas about how the work should go and insist on hearing it in that way every time. The many spectral passages are extremely well done, and the D major resolution at the 23-minute mark is properly provisional in feeling, preceding, as it does, the coda, in which the music comes satisfyingly to rest whilst maintaining the feeling that this is only a moment of repose in a long and eventful journey.
The violins really dig in to the opening music of the second movement, as does the first violin solo, a promising start to a trenchant and convincing reading. If the interest occasionally sags that is perhaps Mahler’s fault rather than anybody else’s. The ending is off-hand and straitlaced, just as it should be. The mood and purpose, rather than the music, of the third movement – Rondo. Burleske. – has always put me in mind of the corresponding movement of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony. Thousands of notes are employed to convey a feeling of purposeless endeavour, so much activity to so little end. The two extremely beautiful moments of calm, where we hear the turning figure that is to be so important in the final movement, serve as contrast to this. Both aspects of the movement are brilliantly realised here, with the stretto that leads to the movement’s close particularly dazzling.
And so the finale – ‘Adagio’ – that takes up only 17 of the score’s 180 pages. This long, slow leave-taking presents enormous challenges of concentration to the conductor, the players and the listener. This is perhaps the moment to note that the Essen Philharmonic Orchestra makes a remarkably beautiful sound, with an enviable richness of string tone and a most euphonious blend to the wind band. There is not a weak link among the wind principals, and all this is reinforced by a very fine recording. A single example of the sound quality, chosen from many, would be the remarkable presence of the bass drum in this finale, a movement in which the percussion section is almost totally silent. Netopil’s pacing of this movement is exemplary. In his hands the opening is noble and immensely dignified, with not a trace of self-pity. I like this very much, as I also do the control of the final page, leading to a close that is as moving as any I have heard on record.
If Mahler’s Ninth does not lend itself to repeated, frequent listening, nor does it seem appropriate, or even possible, to subject it to detailed comparisons. Its epic quality and variety of expression lead us to more general impressions when thinking about other performances. This one is less overtly emotional than Barbirolli in his justifiably classic Warner performance with the Berlin Philharmonic from 1964. It is less histrionic than Bernstein’s in either of the two readings mentioned above (though my use of the word ‘histrionic’ is not meant as a criticism: Bernstein is sublime in this symphony). Of recent versions that I have heard – and there are many that I have not – Netopil is perhaps closest to Iván Fischer’s fine performance with the magnificent Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel Classics). It is interesting, however, that Netopil takes significantly more time over the finale than do any of these conductors.
When, in the future, I find myself in need of Mahler’s Ninth – and who can say when that will be? – the simple humanity and fine control of Netopil’s performance, alongside the superb orchestral playing and demonstration quality recording, will do much to persuade me to take this version down from the shelves.
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