Mahler: Symphony No. 9 - Nott
Tudor SACD 7162 (2 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Mahler: Symphony No. 9
Jonathan Nott (conductor)
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Review by John Broggio - May 6, 2010
A life affirming account of arguably the greatest symphony in the repertoire.
Firstly, for those who are not familiar with the work, Mahler transforms the genre and turns the tempo relations inside-out. For the opening movement and the finale, these are not the expected Allegros but an "Andante comodo" (which does quicken on several occasions) and an Adagio subtitled "Sehr langsam und noch zuruckhaltend". The inner movements are the faster ones, containing a deeply sarcastic Landler, and a savagely biting Rondo Burleske as a grotesque Scherzo. When heard from beginning to end, the emotional impact is, or should be, overwhelming - the final pages leave one hanging on every note, with breathing an act of bravado lest the spell should be broken.
Right from the opening notes it is clear that this account is going to be something special; the dying breaths emanating from cellos and 4th horn are overlain by most beautiful playing from the 2nd horn and 2nd violins (who importantly are placed to the right of the podium). The antiphonal spacing of the violins allows for their different melodies to be heard far more clearly than usual and also where Mahler fragments the line between the violin sections can now be fully appreciated - it can, in the more spectral moments of the score, make for some very disconcerting auditory experiences compared to those ensembles whose violins are lumped together as a block. Nott's pacing is unerring, never hurried but never dragging - as with many British people his sense of humour is very black and this leaves a troubled emotional picture as he negotiates the many highs and lows that this vast edifice spans (both in notes and psychological terms). Nott ensures that the almost impossibly detailed instructions are followed to the letter and does so in a way that lets every part sound as part of an organic whole, even if they only take the lime light for a couple of notes.
In the mocking Landler, the unusual care taken over dynamic balance between the instruments leads to many details becoming audible without a score that is not normally the case. Once again, the decision to place violins opposite one another pays real dividends and makes for a witty dialogue in large parts of the score. The piu mosso sections are given a serious shot of energy and as they return, Nott progressively cranks up the tension creating an almost demonic picture of the dance. At no point though does the Bamberg Symphony sacrifice on refinement of sound and their range of dynamic and tone production is staggering, approaching what one would normally expect from the BPO but with their own distinctive hue which is rather less intense than their more illustrious compatriots. The same applies to the Rondo Burleske which is a real helter-skelter of a ride. The divided violins once again allow the intricate part writing to be heard easily and a feature of the Bamberg Symphony tonal qualities is that, even though their sound is rich and well rounded, they possess a translucency of sound that is remarkable in richly polyphonic passages such as these. As with the piu mosso sections of the second movement, Nott unleashes his forces and they respond with vigour and bite; the illusory stillness before the continually pressed coda highlights the delicacy that these same players can bring.
The finale is a wonderful interpretation in Nott's hands and the Bamberg players. The playing exudes a natural authority and richness that is entirely becoming and at the service of the music. Through careful phrasing and balancing, Nott links the variations into a seamless and convincing whole that constantly strains at the very limits of contrasting emotions. The great climax of the work, after the repeated c flats, is burning with a deep, bright heat and firmly rejects any fatalistic elements that other conductors have found. In the approach to the final measures, the cello solo is rendered with aching beauty and tenderness. As with all great interpretors of this score, Nott paces the concluding pages so that the bar lines cease to have meaning and the notes die away - the listener is held rapt, not daring to breathe as this elegy to life fades into eternity. The only possible criticism is that the "pause" allowed by the disc pressing is too short for the listener to recover their composure before the disc finishes.
The recording is sensationally good - all the score is audible without reference to the printed page and the tone of the orchestra is just gorgeous. The identifiable positioning of the orchestra is far better handled than other recordings from this team and must count as their finest effort to date. The notes are also good, so there is nothing that marks this recording out as anything other than a great account that challenges those great BPO readings from Abbado and Karajan (and having been present at several BPO/Abbado Mahler 9's, I never thought I'd be able to say that about anybody!)
Superlatives are not plentiful enough for this magnificent set.
Copyright © 2010 John Broggio and HRAudio.net
Review by John Miller - May 8, 2010
One of the most valuable features of music as a form of human communication is its ability to express several emotions at once. Mahler's Ninth Symphony is a prime example of this. Plunged into an abyss of despair after the spiritual affirmation of the Eighth, the news of Mahler's probably fatal heart disease (and the affair his wife Alma was having with Walter Gropius) turned him once more to the orchestra as his protagonist. Mostly composed in 1909, the symphony was hailed by Alban Berg as "the most glorious [the composer] ever wrote".
On their traverse through Mahler's symphonies in no particular order, Jonathan Nott and his Bamberg Symphony Orchestra have steadily been refining their interpretations, playing style and ensemble. This Nineth is the finest of their efforts so far, and indeed is invested with a superbly produced recording by the Tudor team, arguably the best the symphony has been accorded so far. Avoiding many accretions from various performance 'traditions', Knott's lucid approach obviously derives from a detailed study of the score and a re-thinking thereof.
His orchestral layout would have been familiar to Mahler, with first and second violins seated on opposite sides of the stage, basses at the back left and raised to better project their tone. This pays dividends in the motivic inter-penetrations and multi-layered polyphonic exchanges that teem in Mahler's Ninth. The engineers have provided pin-sharp imaging, a wide sound-stage and excellent front-back perspective, particularly in their multi-channel track. The ample acoustic of the Joseph-Keilberth Saal of the Bamberg Concert Hall is used expertly to enhance distant horn solos and atmospheric echoes, while its warmth supports lovely violin tone, deeply-digging string basses and profoundly disturbing rolls on the big bass drum.
The first movement of the Ninth begins softly by presenting a series of seemingly unrelated short motifs, including a syncopated pair of notes at the same pitch, a short phrase on a hand-stopped horn (much more biting than usual), brief quivers from violas, a falling second and ultimately a plaintively halting tune on the violins. The score gives no indication that these are to be smoothly fitted together, as many conductors do. Nott, however, maintains their initial disconnection, heading for his later revelation that these are components which finally fit together in Mahler's organic structural plan. This is a Sibelius-like symphonic construction.
Nott's main pace and rhythm are remarkably dance-like, a processional pavan which is a variant of Mahler's fondness for starting off his symphonies with funeral marches. This movement is impelled expertly throughout its sometimes hysterical progress, swelling and subsiding with wonderful phrasing and uniformity of ensemble. Dynamics and shading are shrewdly judged and pointed, and none of Mahler's psychological preoccupations are missed, such as the distant mock military fanfares (which as a child he heard from the barracks over the wall while his drunken father was beating Mahler's mother), and an Alma-inspired love theme, which becomes horribly distorted. Spent, its turbulent energy collapses at the end, returning to the starting key of D flat major. A sweet solo violin intones the love theme only to fade away, leaving just pianissimo harmonics from the harp, beautifully caught by the engineers.
The Nineth's inner movements are nightmarish. The second, "In tempo of a comfortable Ländler, somewhat clumsy and coarse" is given a thrilling ride by the Bambergers. Here is brilliant characterisation by the wind and brass soloists; indeed there is inspired edge-of-seat playing from the entire orchestra. Parodies of banal country music are conjured; leaden-footed strings tread the dance, droll, tawdry, grotesque and macabre fragments fly around the orchestra and all are located perfectly in the sound-stage by the transparent recording. Every change of mood and pace in the score is fully realised under Nott's precise direction. Mahler's Trio parody of a popular soupy Viennese waltz (suspiciously like a theme from Richard Strauss' Rosenkavalier, which was being composed around the same time) is devastatingly subjected to sneering commentaries from the wind and brass before the nightmarish Ländler recurs.
The ensuing Rondo-Burlesque is also a tour-de-force. Taken at a furious pace - incisive, brittle and brutal - it calms for only a few moments to introduce another Alma love-theme, featuring a "turn" ornament. This theme is to feature much in the Adagio Finale, but here it appears like a half-remembered memory, on a pawky solo trumpet over shimmering strings. Almost immediately the wind instruments leap on it, a clarinet touting its cheeky parody, then the whole wind section cruelly deconstruct this Alma theme, a foretaste of the heartbreak to come in the Adagio. Furious as Nott's unfolding of this movement is, full of bile and contempt on one level, on another level the bravura of its orchestration and brilliant execution here seem to signify Mahler's confidence in his overall control via the sheer power of his creative spirit.
Nott has noted Mahler's adjunct at the opening of the final Adagio; "Very slow and yet restrained". Bernstein cannot resist imbuing the violin's agonised call on the G string with his entire life-force; Karajan is noble and stoic. Nott is indeed discretely restrained, yet with saturated string tone and inner strength from beautiful phrasing, the vividly antiphonal strings adding grit and depth to the sound. His development of the "turn" melody has a remarkable inner stillness, drawn out to the incomparable last few bars, as Mahler thins his textures to just a few instruments. Presages of the Tenth symphony appear, especially in the dark passages for stalking bass clarinet and contra-bassoon, superbly captured by the engineers. The Alma or "turn" melody finally fragments, attenuates and dissolves into eternal silence, with superb steadiness and control by the players, making this movement's compactness amazing for all its emotional weight.
Lingering long in the memory, far more so than Gilbert's recent single disc for BIS, this Ninth deserves a place in the handful of finest recordings. Profound, revelatory and deeply moving, it disproves the ridiculous notion that good Mahler recordings can only issue from the stellar orchestras of Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna and so on. Unmissable.
Copyright © 2010 John Miller and HRAudio.net