Mahler's Ninth Symphony, Lucerne Festival, Abbado, review
By Paul Gent / Telegraph (August 23, 2010)
Mahler has been inescapable in this, the 150th anniversary of his birth – and as next year is another Mahler anniversary, there is still some way to go. But I doubt if either year will produce a better Mahler performance than this, in which Claudio Abbado, looking gaunt but fit at 77, conducted the hand-picked virtuosos of the festival orchestra in a rendition of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony of astonishing depth and subtlety.
Mahler’s last completed symphony is often said to be death-haunted, and that is certainly true of the ending, where the composer seems to be staring without rancour into the abyss. But there is much elsewhere that is life-affirming, and the overwhelming impression of Abbado’s interpretation was of a delicate, but unwavering balance between opposing forces.
In the second movement, with its galumphing ländler rhythms, he produced sounds both coarse and sophisticated at the same time: there were wild string leaps and fierce accents, yet all the exaggeration was held within a regular pulse and the repeated rhythms were subtly varied.
In the third movement, the Rondo-Burleske, Abbado highlighted the contrast between earthy parody and the glimpses of heaven provided by the solo trumpet, and brought the movement to a thrilling conclusion.
But it’s the huge outer movements that provide the sternest challenges. The first movement is notable for a succession of juddering crises; Abbado maintained a steady stream in the great build-ups and expertly avoided losing momentum in the post-climax sections, where the music seems to be slowly reassembling itself.
In the last movement, richness and transparency fight for supremacy. The lush passages were underpinned by a powerful, growling double-bass section, but it was transparency that won out. As the violins began the slow winding-down and decomposition of the final pages, the texture thinned to a spectral web. Several times, the music seemed almost to stutter to an exhausted halt. At last, the strings whispered the final phrase, almost inaudibly.
And nothing happened. Abbado kept his arms raised, the players held their instruments in position. I almost forgot to breathe. Then, slowly, he lowered his hands and the musicians put down their instruments.
And still nothing happened. The rapt audience sat in silence, unwilling to break the mood, for maybe two minutes – an eternity in the concert hall.
At last the applause started and went on even longer than the silence. It was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary concert.
Copyright Telegraph 2010.
Original URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/7960342/Mahlers-Ninth-Symphony-Lucerne-Festival-Abbado-review.html