Valery Gergiev's interpretations of Mahler have aroused divergent responses; I find them for the most part very appealing even if they come with a few idiosyncrasies. What struck me about this Ninth is how surprisingly lightweight it feels despite the utter intensity of the performance. Finally here is an interpretation that does not wallow in the myth of the "Mahler death wish". Some might think this inadequate, but when he wrote this, Mahler was not mortally ill, had realized that his heart condition would not kill him right away and was vividly praparing his 2nd season as musical director of the New York Philharmonic. He was full of plans, not yet having caught the simple throat infection that would eventually kill him. Death was a topic, but certainly not a preoccupation for Mahler when he wrote this symphony.
This is a performance that is not burdened by the sense of impending doom some conductors like to celebrate - quite the opposite to Horenstein's dark 1966 mono recording. Mahler may be dealing with images of mortality in this symphony, but he is doing it with a fair amount of critical distance, and this comes across very well in Gergiev's interpretation. The first movement approaches delicately, almost reluctantly, and before you know unfolds into a marvelous musical experience. The "sighs" written into the music have impact, but do not weigh down heavily on the listener, and the overall mood is very positive.
Granted, neither of the two middle movements come across with all the acerbity they could have, but they make their point well and while they don't have all of the potential sarcasm and dark humour outlined by Mahler, they do have lots of momentum - even though "sehr derb" (rather vulgar) is something the 2nd movement is not; still, Gergiev is a lot coarser here than, say, Abbado or Karajan. Gergiev handles the final Adagio very delicately: other conductors decide either to make this the musical equivalent of a dark death wish or the peaceful embracement of impending heaven; here there is no sense of "great significance", no over-interpretation of any kind, just a sense of falling asleep to greet another day on the next morning. It's a pleasant feeling that I like very much, as it remains lightweight, has depth, but is not drawing undue attention to itself.
This is certainly a recording that is to be recommended. For me it's not quite up to par with Sinopoli, Chailly or Nott, but Gergiev does complement these recordings well. It also appeals more to me than Karajan's famous 1982 recording, except of course for the final Adagio, where it seems inconceivable that Karajan could be bettered by anyone. That said, every Mahlerite should really have this one, if only for its surprisingly refreshing approach to the music.