Mahler Symphony No 9 – Abbado
The fact that Mahler’s Ninth no longer presents a fierce challenge to orchestras and their musicians can bring losses as well as gains. Listeners brought up on Bruno Walter’s 78s may even feel that the sound of an orchestra clinging on for dear life in music it can barely play is part of the intended effect. Claudio Abbado clearly doesn’t agree. This, his fourth commercial recording of the work, is even more luminous, elegant and subtly integrated than its predecessors. In some recent Abbado interpretations, the Mediterranean fluency and rapid pacing implies a hint of complacency or, at least, a reluctance to wrestle with those darker and more tumultuous corners of the score. I didn’t feel that for one moment in his glorious account of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (EuroArts, 2/11) and it certainly isn’t the case with this Ninth, which can only be described as unmissable.
The first movement, marked Andante comodo, now seems ideally plotted, more spacious than in his previous DVD recording with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (EuroArts, 3/05), with playing even more proficient than in his famous Berlin concert version (DG, 10/02). There is perhaps less gain in the inner movements, where sceptics (who tend to be American with this conductor) will levy the charge that Mahler executed with the refinement and subtlety of chamber music is Mahler deracinated or Mahler-lite. Perhaps so, yet it hardly seems to matter: Abbado’s almost playful approach brings its own rewards. The great final Adagio, crowning the reading even more effectively than before, is as deeply affecting as I have ever heard it.
For me, and I suspect for Shirley Apthorp who has written the accompanying bookletnote, Abbado’s only real rival here is Leonard Bernstein – ideally in the quite elderly (1971) performance now on DVD (DG, 2/06). The surprise is that in his less insistently emotive way Abbado is just as likely to prompt the tears. An interpretation that might seem too cool is in fact superbly gauged to provide maximal catharsis by the close – and there are intrusive post-performance shots of weeping concertgoers thrown in to prove it. As one expects in Lucerne, the reluctant icon commands absolute respect from hand-picked musicians and well-heeled audience members alike. When the music finally ends and, as in any truly great account of this highly affecting score, one feels that life itself is ebbing away, all present are held in awed silence. Even when the time comes for Abbado to finally lower his hands and for the players to put down their instruments, the spell remains unbroken for a while longer. The ovation when it comes is suitably tremendous. The conductor looks as gaunt as ever but happy with what has been achieved.
The Lucerne Festival’s recent switch of allegiance to the relatively new Accentus label has brought only minor changes in presentational style. The cover artwork is unexpected but apposite – the tree imagery is Egon Schiele’s. Inside, the obsession with maestro Willem Mengelberg is a little puzzling given Abbado’s suaver manner. It is presumably Abbado who asked for the lights to be dimmed in the final stages. Did he want the so-called multi-angle camera feature focused on the podium (in the first movement alone)? The sound is good if dryish still. Strongly recommended – but you knew that.