Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Gatti, Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 22 January 2009
Mahler had a superstitious fear of tackling his Ninth Symphony, and the score he completed in 1909 is duly riven with anguish, nostalgia and farewell gestures. Its 1912 premiere did indeed prove posthumous.
Had Mahler lived to rehearse the 75-minute work himself, it is possible that he might have clarified certain textures, particularly in the vast opening movement. Composed in his most advanced manner, with harmonies wrenched out of true to heighten expression, and great waves of writhing counterpoint from the strings, this movement is arguably Mahler's finest formal achievement. But balancing its textures demands the closest care, whereas Daniele Gatti, conducting from memory, seemed more concerned with sonorous progression and the broad gesture, so that much detail was obscured.
Yet such complexities are less of a problem in the remaining three movements, and the virtues of Gatti's approach steadily mounted. The acidulated folkdance of the second movement can sound a letdown after the life-and-death struggles of the first. Here, the Royal Philharmonic responded with such pungency to Gatti's fiercely sardonic direction that, for once, it sounded all of a piece. Still more, the savage "Rondo Burlesque" third movement in which Mahler seems to turn on musical tradition itself and tear it to pieces.
The vibrant, grainy weight of the RPO strings in the Adagio finale was a wonder to hear, yet such was the breathless hush with which they delivered that final heartbreaking page, that one wondered whether the sound was even reaching those at the back of the hall. The ensuing applause confirmed that the message had come over anyway.
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