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Between Resignation and Resolution
on 6 February 2013
Mahler's 9th Symphony can be taken a number of ways. The much-vaunted reading is one of a decadent world teetering on collapse. Its composition two summers before Mahler's untimely death supports such a view, though Mahler himself compared the work with his much greener 4th Symphony.
Bernard Haitink is one of the chief exponents of the latter more tenacious Mahler 9 (available in a number of versions and formats): introspective when it needs but potent until the end. And it's in that spirit that Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform the work on this new recording from Deutsche Grammophon, even if not all of Dudamel's decisions support such a reading.
The opening movement begins slower than the comfortable walking pace specified by Mahler. Given Dudamel's boundless energy, you cannot quite imagine him lolling along at such a speed. Slack tempo aside, Dudamel brings out delicious Luftpausen in the various motivic fragments that coalesce to form the opening thematic group. And having built slowly to the first climax - dominated by thrilling if over-insistent brass - Dudamel provides the necessary release into a more liberated tempo.
The eerie blur that Mahler fashioned before the return of the D major theme, however, feels too clinical here and undermines the tenderness of what follows. The playing is strong, even if the woodwind solos lack the requisite throb and Dudamel's choice of six rather than four horns has inevitable repercussions with balance. Ultimately there is grim determination within the first movement, as if Mahler were desperate to escape his inevitable collapse.
The ensuing Ländler is notably straight, rather than the self-mocking Mahler looking back at previous bucolic forays. The Angelenos' playing is clean, the counterpoint clear. But Dudamel then pulls at the structure by protracting transitional passages almost to breaking point. Fresh and sincere playing gives one reading, yearning tempo changes communicate another.
The LA Phil's occasionally repressive precision works to much greater effect in the Rondo-Burleske, with the strings bedding in at the heel of the bow. They don't quite tip as far into the abyss as the Bamberger Symphoniker under Jonathan Nott - to say nothing of Abbado's lacerating account from Lucerne - but Dudamel certainly produces the feeling of an unstoppable juggernaut. But, having generated that attack, Dudamel then pushes too hard through the beautiful sigh that comes in its wake. This effectively irons out the movement's emotional disparity and the return to the march doesn't feel as insidious as it should, even if the conclusion proves thrilling.
In many ways Dudamel's reading of the final movement aspires directly to Haitink's tenacious vision, unwilling to capitulate to the bitter Lebewohl of Chailly and Nott's interpretations (among others). The orchestra remains full-voiced here, though the tempo is too generous - Dudamel often falls prey to the 'pause means importance' school of thought. While initial gestures suggest resolution, Dudamel eventually turns towards resignation.
Mahler thrives on these ambiguities, of course, and, having only recently embarked on his journey through these multilayered scores, Dudamel is at liberty to explore the causes and effects of various interpretative decisions. And those choices aside, the LA Phil plays well on this recording, if lacking the necessary abandon for a truly no-holds-barred performance. Ultimately, while nobody can claim that this recording could or should form Dudamel's final thoughts on the work, it is highly intriguing as a springboard to further interpretation.