Saturday 9 May 2015

Mahler 9 from Korea - an exploration

Mahler Symphony No. 9 Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
Mahler Symphony No. 9; Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung; Deutsche Grammophon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 4 2015
Intense and sober live version from Korea of Mahler's final symphony

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog, may be slightly surprised to find a review of Mahler symphony on this blog as neither the symphonies of Mahler or Bruckner are very central to my musical interests. I have to admit that my first encounter with a Mahler symphony (with James Loughran and the Halle) left me profoundly bored. Having missed the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms last year through illness, I was intrigued to be able to encounter them on disc. And having recently encounter Rimsky Korsakov from Istanbul, I set myself the challenge to listen to and write about Mahler from Korea. So this article is less of a review (there is no star rating) and more of an exploration.

Mahler's Ninth Symphony is the latest of Myung Whun Chung's recordings with his Korean Orchesrta, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. Released on the Deutsche Grammophon label, the disc was made live at Seoul Arts Center on 29-30 August 2013.

Mahler's last symphony is very much bound up in his obsession with being doomed never to write more than nine symphonies and the work is very much an elegiac farewell. The CD article includes a programme for the symphony written by Willem Mengelberg who was close to the composer, and which is explicitly a farewell. Whilst being relatively compact in Mahlerian terms it does contain some of his longest single movements.

The opening movement, Andante comodo, is a long elegiac span, very long as it runs to 28 minutes so to bring it off requires the combination of great sense of architecture from the conductor and intense concentration from the players. The first thing that struck me was the sound of the strings, always an important component in Mahler. The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra strings play with a sense of flexible line which has fine-grained tone but with an innate strength which is expressive, but not luxurious. Throughout the movement we continue this combination of flexibility and strength. The players bring a lovely sense of control and subtlety to the quiet, rather magical textures in the movement. There is a steadiness to Myung-Whun Chung's direction, even in the passages of struggle or  impulse. He brings a real architectonic feel to the span of the movement. Yet there is a sobriety too, despite the moments of sublime beauty.

The second movement, Im Tempo eines gemachlichen Landlers is described as a dance of death by Mengelberg. Here we have not so much the savage irony of Shostakovich but more a determined dancing in the face of disaster. Myung-Whun Chung brings a steady sense of drawing  on through the music, despite gusts of the whole orchestra getting carried away.

The Rondo burleske starts with an angry trumpet gesture, and the orchestra opens all crisp rhythms, busy yet firm with a suppressed sense of anger. Again Myung-Whun Chung makes you feel the music carrying onward, till the glorious slow section where the fine grained playing brings a transparent coolness too the music. Finally we develop a real intensity in the sound, a strongly emotive line from the strings, vibrant yet still firm. The brilliant passage where the opening material returns in the distance, over the slower middle section is magically realised with a lovely sarcastic edge to the distant interruption from the opening material. The full return of the opening material returns with full driven bravura which Myung-Whun Chung whips the orchestra into a terrific climax.

 The final Adagio, almost as long as the opening movement, is a second elegy. Here the string play with a lovely richly expressive, vibrant sense of line, but still with that underlying strength to it. I have always found that the tune here has an alarming similarity to 'Abide with me' (not quite as alarming as the Russian symphony where one melody is akin to 'If you want to know the time, ask a policeman').  The control of the players really shows here as we have some real magic in the quieter moments. This control from the players is matched by the steady solidity of Myung-Whung Chung's grip on the architecture, creating a long deeply felt movement.

Speeds are on the fast to moderate side, with Myung-Whung Chung coming in at 79:56 compared to Rattle's 84:00 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Bernstein's 89:00, whilst the fastest on record is probably Bruno Walter at 70:13, whilst the admired Kubelik recording almost matches Myung-Whung Chung at 79:09.

This recording is an impressive achievement and highly memorable. Not everyone will admire the soberness and solidity of the interpretation, Myung-Whun Chung does largely avoid the extreme emotionalism. This is a superb achievement especially as it was recorded live, and it certainly shows that Myung-Whun Chung and his Korean orchestra are on an international stage.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) - Symphony No. 9 in D Major (1910) [79.56]
Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
Myung-Whun Chung (conductor)
Recorded live in Seoul Arts Centre, August 29-30, 2013
DEUTSCHE GRAMOPHON 0289 481 1109 1CD [79.56]
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