Classical CD Reviews

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D Major – Los Angeles Philharmonic/ Gustavo Dudamel – DGG (2 CDs)

Recorded live at a concert from February 2012, this is Gustavo Dudamel’s first CD with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Published on April 4, 2013

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D Major – Los Angeles Philharmonic/ Gustavo Dudamel – DGG B0017969-02 (2 CDs) 45:59; 40:07 [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Recorded live at a concert from February 2012, this Mahler Ninth constitutes Gustavo Dudamel’s first CD with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  We may well be cognizant that this work lay dear to the heart of another LA Philharmonic leader, Carlo Maria Giulini. Dudamel has expressed his admiration for the 1910 score, stating that “it embodies all the deep, personal dualities at the heart of Mahler’s music: life and death, love and fear, hope and despair.”  (We recently reviewed Dudamel’s performance of another Mahler Symphony {No. 8} with different forces.)

The 1907 Das Lied von der Erde had expressed Mahler’s fateful farewell to life, a symphony with voices that avoided the “Ninth” designation among his symphonies so that the superstitious Mahler would not tempt tragic fate. The F-sharp—E Abschied motif (mi–re), whose sung “ewig” signifies Mahler’s confrontation with mortality in a resigned mode, stands in opposition to its later eruption Mit Wut (furiously), that will express Mahler’s spiritual defiance. Commentators point out that the mi–re–do progression derives from Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Piano Sonata, Op. 81a, a motif realized through a combination of oboe, piccolo, and high cello harmonics late in the opening Andante comodo.

A schism of emotion runs through the symphony, with sincere pathos juxtaposed against frightful caricatures, as though the Dance of Death were hidden even in the most consoling of musical episodes. Mahler subscribed to a Manichean, agonistic personal philosophy, in which dualism manifests itself in all modalities of existence: “the world moves by contradiction.” The fierce emotional confrontations can become quite bitter, with Mahler’s inviting distortions by way of his tempo indications – as in the Laendler’s clumsy, coarse, and heavy-footed tread – along with whole tone scales and inverted counterpoint. The repetitive cycle of ascents and collapses becomes a synoptic round-dance that mocks Nietzsche’s Eternal Return. The three dances of the second movement may owe their ironies to the ball-scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which Mahler well knew. Yet the great performances of this often convulsive work capture its fierce urgency for life in all its paradoxical glory, the tenuous fragility of our grip, our illusory sense of control, over our own destiny.

The slow progression Dudamel mounts in the first movement has an elastic effect, particularly that the zoom-lens of concentrating on individual harmonies and colors indicates how close Mahler’s music lies to the next generation of thinkers of the Second Viennese School. The sliding strings and wind motif easily hearkens to the shattering love theme from the A Minor Symphony No. 6, while brass and tympani revive those paroxysms that announced Mahler’s frightful heart arrhythmia that produced the “fate” trilogy of symphonies 5 thru 7. Death’s fiddle, present in the G Major Symphony, reasserts itself in the Laendler, just prior to the dervish dance episode that prefigures Ravel’s La Valse. We might recall Simone Simone’s ghastly reel with victim John Qualen in The Devil and Daniel Webster, the music composed by a Mahler-canny Bernard Herrmann.

The gallows-humor intensifies at the Rondo-Burleske, a ghoulish movement that mocks Mahler’s own sentimentality. Mahler dedicated the music “To my brothers in Apollo,” a rather Schumann-like in-joke meant to unify Mahler in death with fellow martyrs to music and ideas. The fractious counterpoints derive their force from Mahler’s previous scherzos in the C-sharp Minor and E Minor Symphonies. The sense of parody involves brilliant use of orchestral colors, with the LA Philharmonic’s winds, tympani, and horns in full battle dress. At points, we can virtually feel Till Eulenspiegel’s sarcastic death squawk. The music achieves a virtual hallucination of chaotic anguish, as if by centripetal acceleration, the earth had tossed off its surface dwellers. The last movement indicates a spiritual decline, a grand Adagio that moves ineluctably to D-flat. Mahler concentrates on textures, separating the hymn melody through horns, low strings, and high strings, sometimes eliminating any middle voices. His indications, from “very expressive” to “without emotions,” tries to divest us of human commitment or concern for the larger forces that manipulate us. The effect of such scoring on Richard Strauss now exists for the record. Dudamel’s slow, thoughtful applications barely succeed in holding the lines of tension together, the thread’s often teetering on evaporation. The low string line more than inspires motifs in the Shostakovich Fifth. Dudamel controls the last, luminous adagissimo with a fine-spun, silken filament, our last link with reality.

—Gary Lemco

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