A Mahler symphony is a sprawling affair; it takes a very precise and disciplined orchestra to get through 95 minutes of polyrhythms and harmonic shifts without losing the sense of direction at some point. Playing the Symphony no. 9 in D major in their Amsterdam home last night under the watchful eye and measured baton of Myung-whun Chung, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra showed exactly that precision and discipline: never did the sense of forward progress falter; never did the symphony’s many components become unstitched, never was the overall shape of each movement in doubt.

Myung-Whun Chung
© Jean-Francois-Leclercq

Chung’s podium demeanour eschews all flamboyance. His attire is tidy, his movements are neat, clear and unexaggerated. The symphony proceeded in an atmosphere of respect: the musicians attentive to their conductor, Chung respectful of the immensity of the work. The result was a thoroughly enjoyable performance, but one that left on the table some of the extremes of expression of which this music is capable.

Much Romantic-era music is by no means romantic with a small “r”, but the opening of the Ninth is truly one of those works where you can imagine yourself on a remote beach with your loved one. After the almost faltering opening, the RCO settled into a measured tread below the most expansive of melodies. The trumpet-led and timpani-grounded waves of passion cascaded over us: somehow, while you know the wave is coming, Mahler still manages to surprise you when it arrives. The RCO strings were full bodied but not overly lush: there was clarity of purpose rather than vibrato-laden opulence. The blended orchestra sounds better than the sum of its parts: woodwind solos were unremarkable as regards any special timbre or character of phrasing, but the sound of the orchestra as a whole was always a perfectly balanced blend, whether in the biggest shock-and-awe from the trombones, the soaring of trumpets or the lightest of string ostinati.

What does it all mean? Much has been written, a great deal of it contradictory, but its perhaps best if each listener makes up their own mind: for me, the first movement of the Ninth is a journey through all that life has to throw at you, the supremely calming end denoting a (temporary) acceptance of it all. Your own response might be altogether different.

I lost touch with the interpretation, however, in the heavy Ländler that opens the second movement, which was rather too genteel for me: at its core, this is village dance music and I wanted it played with heavier feet, more abandon, more of a demonic urge. The reprises of the dance fared better and Chung proved at his best in the moments of relaxation, with the horn playing remarkably consistent. The distorted waltz, led by the first violins, regained some the energy missing earlier.

The third movement Rondo-Burlesque provided the moment for the RCO’s precision to come to the fore: the music is extremely complex and fugal and becomes particularly thrilling when an orchestra is as sure-footed as this. Mahler’s humour shone through, with clarinets cocking a snook at the world.

The fourth movement Adagio is a monumental work in itself. It’s best to suspend analysis and judgement, letting the music swell and relax, carrying you with it: the horns in lyrical mood and the not-too-overdone strings taking charge of your emotions, ending in the most evanescent of high string ostinati. Is this a “long goodbye” to the world, a presage of multiple deaths, or is it an affirmation of life? Once again, I prefer the latter, but the choice is yours.