Mahler - Symphony No. 9

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GUSTAV MAHLER - Symphony No. 9 - State Symphony Orchestra of Russia - Mark Gorenstein (Conductor) - 2-Disc Set - 760623171920 - Released: October 2011 - MDG 6481719

The sixty-five-year-old Mark Gorenstein motivates the 120 members of his orchestra, the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, with immense precision. And what a rewarding experience! From the very first moment one feels the musical suction effect with which the developments are lived through with heart and soul and culminate in the deceptive cadences of the famous Adagio finale movement. Mahler with Russian soul – who might resist it? {MDG Records}

A mere few seconds into my first audition of this new recording and I already knew that I was in for a riveting 95 minutes. The horn at bar four which intones the first glimpse of a later subject, the second violins at bar six which launch the main theme with a haunting descending motif of F sharp and E, the english horn that joins in at bar fifteen, the measured pace set down by conductor Mark Gorenstein, etc ... all of these factors merge perfectly together to draw you into the life's journey battered by cataclysmic events that is the first movement of this phenomenal symphonic work by Gustav Mahler. Repeatedly, life's driving force tries to assert itself, but each time has to endure blows that impede its progress, and each time slowly limps forward to re-assert itself with even more determination, only to receive a final decisive blow (mit höchster Gewalt - with the utmost violence) at which point the orchestral forces simply collapse and disintegrate (a masterful stroke by Mahler). All of these extremes of mood and orchestral color are very well projected by the musicians of the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia. After all this turmoil the movement ends peacefully on a soft high D on the flute, resolving and focusing all of the harmonic struggles and conflict into one single note.

The second movement, 'Im tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers - In a leisurely pace Ländler' (Etwas täppisch und sehr derb - somewhat awkward and very coarse), is superbly captured here by conductor Mark Gorenstein. Mahler did not write down these tempo indications and interpretive notes for nothing, which should be observed to the letter to convey the energy behind the written score. To me this movement represents a man who can't come to terms with the fact that life should be enjoyed, but that he can't bring himself to see it. It's like he's being dragged, against his will, into a country fair and forced to dance to a happy tune, even though he's heavy-footed, awkward and clumsy, and simply cannot enjoy himself. The music of life seems commonplace and trite to him, and an affront to his spirit. Even as it ends, the music sounds sarcastic. All of these characteristics are very well conveyed in this recording.

The following 'Allegro assai'. (Sehr trotzig - very defiant) on the other hand is an orchestral tour de force of complex counterpoint and rhythmic energy. It's a massive fugue gone berserk. These musicians jump in running, the brass section members in particular truly shine here, and bring the music to a boiling point. Some of the instruments must have been glowing from the energy they generated. The score is a wondrous thing to follow, especially when a performance like this one reveals every little detail and nuance within it.

In this symphony, it is the final movement that is the focal point and emotional center. Notice if you may, a strong statement of faith that Mahler introduces within the music a few times, played very softly and lasting only for two bars. It is first heard within the very first page of the score, at bar number eleven. It is the bass line motif from the Johann Sebastian Bach Chorale Prelude 'Nunn komm der Heiden Heiland' (Come Thou Redeemer). It turns the whole symphony on its head with a powerful hymn to life. From start to finish, as if provoked by that statement, the whole movement is built on and around a multitude of 'gruppettos' or what are commonly called 'turns'. Those early classical musical ornaments usually applied to long notes, where after having played the principal note it would be followed by a quick sequence of five notes with the next note up, the principal note, next note down, principal note and a quick leap to the following note of the melody. The pages of this movement are just littered with them. They get tossed around from instrument to instrument, from line to line, and steadily grow in intensity until they reach a heartbreaking climax, and then gradually recede and fade until the end. And this is where Mahler displays his genius and proves that neither he, nor the music, are defeated. On the last page of the score, in those last achingly slow moments, the violas play three of those gruppettos, but without the fifth note, without a resolution. Time stands still. The music hangs on the edge of an abyss without that resolution. But then in the last two bars, Mahler simply inverts those four notes and the harmony resolves itself, and sheds a glimmer of light in the darkness.

Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend - (Very slow and even reluctant) is the tempo indication at the start of this movement, and that is what is on offer here in this gripping 'live' recording. And just like the famous live Karajan recording, it glows with intensity from start to finish. If the high note in the strings at the 4:27 mark doesn't move you, you are not alive. The same goes for the intense fervor at the 10:30 point. As the music builds and builds, even the players seem to get caught up in the moment and sometimes come close to a meltdown, but all that just adds to the fierce emotional intensity within the music. I've never heard an interpretation as stirring as this one. The last few minutes hold you captive until the very end. The applause and hollers are a clear testimonial to the emotional connection between the music, the players, and the audience. If you are a Mahler devotee, put this recording high on your list of must-haves!

Jean-Yves Duperron - October 2011