The Mahler 9th is a piece on such an immense scale that no one interpreter can hope to say everything in one recording. It offers unlimited possibilities for performers. But regardless of the interpreter's individual insight, it requires strong commitment, a willingness to let go and be engrossed in Mahler's world. While fairly new to Mahler, Valery Gergiev's previous Mahler discs were full of gripping intensity and power. Can he throw himself into the music and give us listeners a vision that is memorable?
The opening movement of this symphony is on a vast canvas, alternating between sobs of remorse and bitter outbursts. Many conductors opt for a "stop and start" approach, letting out excitement in the climaxes only to let the tension sag once the thunder dies done. Gergiev doesn't take such an approach. He sees value in the character of each individual moment but he's equally concerned that the work be viewed as a cohesive whole. With tempi leaning on the fact side, he digs into the music, setting a solid vision for the entire movement. Yet what I find so astonishing is how natural it all sounds. Gergiev's exhilharting drive doesn't lessen the beauty of the work in the least; he is sensitive and picks up on the most subtle details.
The 2nd movement is one of Mahler's most unique creations. To me, it's Mahler trying to be optimistic even when he's on the verge of despair. It's bitter, sarcastic, and ironic. As in the previous movement, Gergiev gives himself over to the music with sweeping power. But I'm not sure if he was witty enough. My Rattle/Berlin account was biting in its sarcasm and Rattle's Berliners are on a higher plane than Gergiev's LSO to begin with. I think Rattle betters Gergiev in this movement, but Gergiev isn't far behind and he's more effortless than Rattle. (To his credit, I think Gergiev is far more inspired than Rattle in the 1st movement.)
In the 3rd movement, Gergiev is quick and to the point. I think it works wonderfully. Not only is it incredibly exciting, but it provides a stark contrast to the lonely desolation of the finale. Gergiev phrases with agility, maneuvering throughout all the tosses and turns without sounding remotely chaotic. I'm again impressed with his sensitivity and feel for the overall vision. The last closing minutes are shattering and have obvious impact yet Gergiev doesn't let the music sound merely bitter; there's purpose and hope behind all of Mahler's struggles.
The whole symphony leads up to the 4th movement. It is here that Mahler says farewell to life. Gergiev wants us to feel Mahler's anguish. I miss the urgency that the Berliners give to the work, but Gergiev has done something special. Gergiev takes the plunge with more sadness than anger. He's desperate and yearning, eerily submissive to the ultimate end of man--death. Gergiev again keeps a strong comprehensive vision of the work as a whole, gradually leading up to the inevitable dying away of the strings in the almost unbearable stillness at the close of the movement. Gergiev is so deeply committed that I can offer no tangible reservations; this is music making that touches the depths of the soul.
In closing, this is a remarkable disc, ending Gergiev's whirlwind Mahler cycle. It's undeniably great, featuring a conductor who is willing to fully commit himself to the tragedy of this gigantic symphony.
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.
Mahler's ninth is surely his greatest symphony - it evokes so many serious emotions that the listener cannot help but be moved. This beautiful rendition is led by the masterful Valery Gergiev as he treats the listener to over an hour's worth of splendid music played by the ever impressive LSO. A thoroughly enjoyable recording of the highest quality.