Mahler's Ninth Symphony – his last complete work in the genre – was written in 1908-9, against a backdrop of considerable personal tragedy and uncertainty. In 1907 he lost his eldest daughter, Maria, to scarlet fever, only to be followed by an anti-Semitic coup forcing him out of his job as artistic director at the Vienna Court Opera, and to receive the diagnosis of the heart condition that would kill him in 1911. For many the work marks the end of the Austro-German symphony, and, with such ultimate resonances, seemed a fitting farewell from Sir Roger Norrington to the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (SWR) as their principal conductor.

© BBC/Manfred Esser
© BBC/Manfred Esser

Norrington has long been associated with historically informed orchestral performance. His particular fascination with late Romantic works is concerning so-called 'pure tone', that is, playing without vibrato. Certainly the academic argument for adopting 'pure tone' as the expressive starting point is relatively strong: Mahler often marked passages with 'vibrato', suggesting that its ubiquitous application was neither typical nor desired; contemporaneous virtuosi, such as Joseph Joachim – the dedicatee of the Brahms concerto – remarked that vibrato was simply a substitute for genuine expression; a few extant historic recordings indeed demonstrate its sparing use.

At its best then, this account was revelatory. It was the bucolic in particular that gained from this freer hand, as the second movement – an eccentric Ländler – was able to get off its feet and fly. Indeed, without wobble, the ear is guided clearly through Mahler's complex and detailed orchestration, his modernist colouration springing forwards here and there, allowing the energy of individual lines to carry themselves without being in anyway overcharged. Furthermore, serenity came easily to the SWR, who were able to let the conclusion to the work float away, rather than stoke it for its final offerings.

But to achieve this came at a price. First and foremost, the tempi were often provocatively fast (especially in the fourth movement), for 'pure tone' misses the sustaining and projecting qualities that vibrato offers; and although this allowed the light in the symphony to shine through, it missed some of the structural luxuriance of its frame.

Ultimately, the question is not so much about the discerning eschewal of vibrato, but rather as to how much of the music requires it – and this performance needed more. It needed more motion within the sound to capture the vast emotional contrasts of a man whose optimism was heroic, but whose tragedies were great. Emotions, and more specifically passions, are never static, whether they be the quivering lips, the faltering voice, the agitated fist, or the tremulous cry. The voice itself is never so still, and so it seems odd to contrive such stasis for such a long time (and it was a long time – so much so that any vibration felt like a relief from sitting perilously still on a ledge).

However, there is little doubt that this type of performance will start to redress the balance in the interpretation of Mahler, even if this weighed too far in the opposite direction. The SWR played fantastically well with excellent intonation – no mean feat, given that there was nowhere to hide with the absence of vibrato. And Norrington opened our ears.