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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1910)
Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra/Adam Fischer
rec. live, 11-13 & 24 January 2019, Tonhalle, Düsseldorf, Germany
CAVI-MUSIC 8553478 [79:03]

Many years ago I asked one of my student colleagues, a violinist, how she could bear to learn any piece by Paganini. It seemed to me, and still does, that the investment required in terms of time and effort far exceeded any possible musical reward. I was reminded of this, as I always am, when listening to the third movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in this splendid performance from Düsseldorf. I try to imagine the composer setting down all those notes on paper, to create ten clear minutes of nothingness, nihilism in music, constant action without purpose and leading to no real end or achievement. I am not claiming, of course, that it is bad music; it surely succeeds in what Mahler was aiming to express. (The third movement of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony has been cited as another example of unceasing musical business without purpose: the comparison is an apt one.) Adam Fischer sets a rather less hectic tempo for this movement than do many of his rivals. He takes some 13 minutes, about the same time that Sir John Barbirolli needed with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1964 (Warner), a quite indispensable reading, and not only for Barbirolli fans. Adam Fischer’s brother, Iván, on the other hand, dispatches the movement in just 12 minutes. I do not find that the impact of the music is diminished in the Düsseldorf performance, and indeed, Fischer inserts an extra little kick on the accelerator, unmarked in the score, to bring the movement to its abrupt end. At least some of the time difference might be accounted for by the slow, middle section, an oasis in all this mindless commotion, and one that contains some of the most beautiful music in the whole work. The Düsseldorf wind principals are marvellous here, as they are throughout.

Leonard Bernstein’s final recorded performance of the Ninth dates from June 1985, a live reading (DG) with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Almost by definition you would expect the orchestral playing to be superior to that on the present disc, and so it may be, but you would need recording producer’s ears to hear any significant faults here. The Ninth is an immense, and immensely complex score, yet the playing throughout is notable for its virtuosity and character. Textures, too, are transparent, allowing the many hidden (or half-hidden) countermelodies to be heard, both from within the string ensemble and from the winds. Fischer launches the long first movement without fuss, the uneven rhythm of the opening bars given without exaggeration or deformation. If the initial paragraph might seem a little cool, this all changes with a hefty thwack from the timpani, in preparation for the first climax. Listeners will surely find that Fischer eschews the emotional extremes that characterise Bernstein’s performance, and many will appreciate that, just as others will wish for something more incendiary. (How you react on a given day might well depend on your mood.) What is certain is that the movement is played as a single span, its different sections skilfully integrated, one with the other, as far as the gentle coda, the orchestra’s leader adopting a touching Viennese lilt.

I like the way Fischer deals with the three elements that make up the second movement. The feeling of dance is maintained throughout, though trenchant and rather severe at the outset, where the violins really dig into the strings – just as the trombones also do, as it were, in the second passage. The third is charming, light-hearted and beautifully done. The opening of the long, slow finale is noble and stoical, the strings rich and impeccably balanced. The many thinly scored passages also work very well, with the clarity of the recording bringing out the rather expressionist nature of the writing. The passage leading to the climactic fff high violin C flats that usher in the final statement of the theme is suitably dramatic and poignant, but we are not as close to breaking point as we are with Bernstein. Hearing Fischer, without direct comparison, nothing is missing. One can say the same thing about the final page of the score, where the music dwindles away into nothing. Fischer needs some 4 minutes for this single page, and extremely moving it is. Bernstein, on the other hand, needed a full minute more.

I rate this performance very highly. None the less, nobody who loves the work will be satisfied with a single reading. I do feel, however, that in such a long and complex work, comparing this or that moment from one performance against another is a foolish and rather meaningless exercise. For sheer neurotic intensity, you should go for Bernstein in Amsterdam: you will not be disappointed. Claudio Abbado on DVD from Lucerne (Accentus) provides a cooler view, and a deeply spiritual one; the audience’s prolonged silence at the end speaks volumes. Iván Fischer’s performance with the marvellous Budapest Festival Orchestra is also very fine indeed, and I’m very smitten with another reading from a provincial German orchestra, the Essen Philharmonic and Tomáš Netopil (Oehms), a recording I reviewed in April 2019. The Düsseldorf performance is described as ‘based on’ live performances. The recorded sound is outstandingly rich, and particularly clear and analytical in heavily scored and louder passages. The booklet carries a short text from the conductor revealing some of his thoughts about the work, many of which can be perceived in the performance itself. There is also a detailed listening guide by Jens Schubbe.

William Hedley

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