Many commentators agree that Mahler's Symphony no. 9 is the composer's most complete piece of self-expression (and indeed his most complete expression of humanity, nature and the supernatural realm in their entireties). Thereafter, interpretations have varied markedly. Leonard Bernstein conceived of the work, among other things, as a premonition of World War I. Writer and physicist Lewis Thomas thought of it as a depiction of the end of the world in the age of nuclear weapons. But, for Alban Berg, Mahler's Ninth was “a tremendous love for this earth, and the longing to live on it peacefully”. In the hands of Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which had pulled in at La Scala as part of its European tour, the work corresponded most closely to the latter conception.
Jansons has said that he enters Paradise whenever he conducts Mahler's Ninth, and this was indeed a performance that gravitated towards the paradisical. Astringent hard edges were sanded down, particularly in the musically varied first movement. Contributions from brass instruments more often melted than snarled. When shivering strings cast a cloud over the music, they were briskly swept aside by thawing horns. The sunny atmosphere that would prevail throughout was established in the gently swaying motifs that open the work.
An underlying sense of unity ran through this performance, as if individual movements were spun out in one huge legato. Climaxes grew slowly, almost imperceptibly, from more introspective passages. Tempi were flexible, and joins between sections managed with the slightest of rallentandi. Accompanying forward momentum kept things dynamic, and, simultaneously, provided a sense of coherence and cohesion. Jansons' eyes seemed to be fixed on the final movement.
Still, this was no blithe stroll through challenging musical terrain. While the work's heavier portions were always well-proportioned, the BRSO never left it in doubt that it possesses a mighty engine under the bonnet. The second movement was robust, Jansons sprinkling fingers to bring out vivid colour in trills and splashes of percussion. The cogs were whirring thrillingly by the time we reached the acid-tongued whole tone waltz. Well-harnessed vitality coursed through the orchestra's ranks in the third movement “Rondo-Burleske”, which the taut, grounded frame of Jansons steered in an “edge-of-your-seat” sound.
The finale is surely unrivalled in Mahler's repertoire for the heights of sublime expression it achieves. In many performances, its emergence in the midst of chaos can feel like the arrival at Heaven's gates. Here, it was the inevitable culmination of a journey that had always tended towards the sublime. Hands plunging in front of his chest, Jansons drew a glowing, transparent sound. He allowed playing to flow naturally and free of affectation to its gossamer denouement. This is music that speaks for itself. The final note, marked “esterbend” (dying), possessed breathtaking fragility. Live in the concert hall, one cannot imagine it done better than this.
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