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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 (1910) [79:55]
Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra/ Myung-Whun Chung
rec. live, Seoul Arts Cemter. August 2013
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 481 110-9 [79:55]

Seoul might seem an unlikely source of Mahler, but the quality of the playing shouldn't surprise anyone -- consider all those Asian students in conservatories. The massed string sonority is slightly grainy, but also warm, resonant, and carefully tuned -- less diffuse, in any case, than Masur's New York Philharmonic (Teldec). The finale's aspiring violin phrases -- all the high violin lines, in fact -- are breathtakingly clean and pure: only a single C in alt whistles a bit. Woodwinds are polished and adept -- the cool, clear flute is a particular pleasure. The fast-moving trombone-and-tuba phrases in the Rondo-Burleske bring real menace, while the trumpet in the central episode is miraculously poised; the horns are full-throated taking center stage in the Finale. Certainly, this orchestra, as heard here, outclasses many of the second- and third-tier Central European ensembles that appeared regularly during the CD boom.

Myung-Whun Chung has had, to put it mildly, a chequered conducting career. A few decades back, when he was guest-conducting the New York Philharmonic, there were reports that the players were writing musical cues into their parts at rehearsal -- practically unheard of among orchestras at this level, suggesting ambiguous baton signals. But, over time, Chung has apparently gotten his act together, and draws alert rhythmic address and crisp articulations from his players. This first-class Mahler Ninth is a worthy culmination of his varied DG series.

First of all, the conductor brings out more of the score's contrapuntal detail than most. In the first movement, I'd never before noticed how many times the themes and motifs appear, displaced by a beat or even half a beat from their normal rhythmic position: this is the first time I really heard them all. Not only does this make for rich, active textures; by throwing the listener off the music's regular, predictable scansion, it creates the effect of a continuous, free-flowing musical line.

Both the bracingly paced middle movements offer a similarly vivid interplay among the motifs. Clarinets and bassoons open the Ländler with deep, reedy timbres; the basses stay springy when they take over the theme; and the violins attack the Tempo II incisively. Even with the brisk start, the relationships among the three tempi sound perfectly gauged. In the startling Rondo-Burleske, I kept hearing "new" motifs before I actually saw them in the score. In these three movements, Chung nearly out-Boulezes Boulez (DG) in his exposition of the full orchestral tapestry.

The great closing Adagio is masterly. Similarly forthright interpreters like Bruno Maderna (BBC Classics), and Markus Stenz (OEHMS) have adopted overly andante tempos that work at the outset, but can't accommodate the more elaborate writing later. Chung, conversely, finds a tempo that projects the first theme as a broad, singing line -- with the Seoul strings "filling in" the beats handsomely -- while allowing space to make the gruppetti expressive later on. The violins transform the clarinet's nose-thumbing Rondo-Burleske phrase into something aching and poignant. The sound thickens briefly at 14:05, in the Nun etwas drängend episode -- the composer perhaps got carried away with the juxtaposition of triple, quadruple, and quintuple groupings -- but the long final fade is breathtaking.

This Ninth immediately goes on my short list, alongside Solti's dramatic, richly recorded London Symphony account (Decca -- avoid the tense Chicago remake); von Dohnányi's surprisingly involved Cleveland version (also Decca); and the wonderfully humane readings of Tennstedt (EMI) and Zander (Telarc). A concert recording under Szell, as taut as Chung's and even more authoritative, appeared in the seven-CD Szell Centennial Compact Disc Edition, worth seeking out; I don't know whether separate issues on Stradivarius and Memories are, in fact, the same performance.

DG labels this as “in D” which it certainly is not, nor did Mahler tag it as such. It certainly starts in D, but visits various key-centres (C major, A minor, F major) before finally coming to rest in D-flat.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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