After spinning this disc, I quickly found myself thinking that this is the sort of reading of the Mahler ninth symphony that, perhaps, the failed Pierre Boulez disc w Chicago SO may have aspired to be. The Philharmonia of London is playing at top form. The recording sound is good, too, though at these high levels of instrumental expertise, one may belatedly wish that we had this reading in SACD multiple channels. Lacking that, I still enjoyed this single disc version of the symphony to such an extent that it easily finds space on the keeper shelves.
Salonen's take on this gigantic work may raise eyebrows, and as one reviewer here has put it, get demerits for being 'too cool' in Mahlerian angst. I really, really like lots of Weltschmerz overall in Mahler, and the ninth symphony is no exception. What Salonen and the PO London serve up has enough size, dimension, and complexity that it kept me involved throughout. My single disc benchmarks for the M9 started w Barbirolli w Berlin, and evolved from there. I typically like the two-disc readings by, say, Wyn Morris, James Levine, Sanderling, Klemperer, and others. Yet some single disc readings do have staying power. Salonen's may be among the keepers, even though I would never, ever want this single disc outing to be my only Mahler ninth.
Tempos are on the faster side, and the musical flow is always moving forward under Salonen. The balancing of textures is so clear that at times the instrumental playing across band departments seems etched in fine lead crystal, ringing like crystal in many Mahlerian moments. The five-tempo polyphony of the first movement is simply so expertly handled, given Salonen's frame, that it might sound too easy, and to that extent, too cool or less than committed, involved. What rescues me from hearing the first movement as only less instead of more, is simply the tremendous virtuosity of the orchestra. Intervals are so clear and clean that an endless flood of intense tonal colors seems available, and as if tone color were not enough, one also begins to hear a fascinating intensity of musical concentration. No, Salonen and the band are not at all taking a heart on sleeve approach. For that I would spin Wyn Morris or James Levine or whomever. But the intellect that reveals, shapes, paces, and culminates throughout the first movement's grand polyphony has a lot of heart, taken on its own particular terms. To my hearing, that heart, color, and intensity are nearly intolerably exquisite at times, not least because the ear catches the whole music so lit with a burning pallette. Salonen's glacier ice sheets burn, burn, burn.
The two middle inner movements are fine in their own ways, though the polyphony is so constant that one can feel exhausted by the profound xray vision that seems to expose everything in the music, without necessarily taking sides ... for a texture over a main theme, for a sardonic or gut-wrenching lyric over the movement's big pictures, or over the ninth symphony's big pictures as a whole.
Come the final movement, Salonen stays on his chosen musical path. The virtuoso band players ramp it up a few notches, if that is possible. One aspect of that gifted superlative comes across as a sort of touch of relaxing, letting go just a very, very little. An ache throbs in those final movement long lines, that was not pulsing quite so vividly in the three prior movements. The forward motion never really stops, however, so part of the sense of grief, mortality, inevitability of farewell may stem simply from the excruciating melodies, laden with such implicit feeling or meaning, still intertwining, still dwarfing in shape and pain, an individual listener. One almost frightening aspect of this reading seems to really come through in the final movement, gangbusters. To my ears Salonen is enacting sonic and musical perspectives, as masterfully in his way, as I tend to associate with the von Karajan reading.
This Mahler ninth is a funereal train, destined to leave the station, right from it's finely judged opening bars. The Everyman who has left us is lying in grand state, no doubt, yet all the pomp and circumstance is hardly a softening of the brutal fact that we have lost someone, someone formerly alive, someone formerly much cherished. One may think of John Donne's famous ... "send not to know for whom the bell tolls, ..." if a listener can even partly identify and get wrapped up in this music that Salonen and the band sculpt into fierce, burning ice.
As in every true reading of the symphony, the final movement is well nigh asymptotic in beauty, as in pain; intolerable, except that sooner or later we must all come to grips with how much we love life and love people, in spite of the fragility, transience of all. No matter how beloved. No matter how deeply beautiful.
If a listener gets this Salonen reading with the Philharmonia, London in tip top form, I promise it will never serve as any sort of background music. You spin this one, and if you get it, you will be compelled to hear, listen, attend, and let it speak to you, if not also in you, and finally through you. One does not pull out out the evening paper or a favorite research journal, all that fast after the final pages cease. A listener lingers. If this reading has grabbed you, then you will indeed need time to recover.
Five stars, ... probably not an immense success on all conceivable listening terms, for everybody no matter what ... but a striking musical achievement in virtuoso orchestra playing, as well as in a certain modernist reading that is completely organized in George Szell-like clarity and open air exposure. Five stars.