The notion that Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (premiered posthumously in Vienna on 26 June 1912, Bruno Walter conducting) constitutes some kind of farewell to the world is now widely regarded as flawed. Yes, the composer had been diagnosed with a heart irregularity, which, along with the deaths of so many of his siblings, had doubtless accentuated his sense of mortality. But when he was composing the Ninth, in 1908 and 1909, he had not yet contracted endocarditis – the then incurable viral infection that was to kill him in May 1911 – so he had no reason to believe that his life and career would end so soon (and he began work on a Tenth Symphony).
It is worth quoting the Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange, who tells how it often seems to him "that those who have written about the Ninth have generally tended to focus most of their attention on the supremely beautiful first and last movements, neglecting to ask themselves why the two central ones in rapid tempo are so replete with anger and negativity, why Mahler goes much further down this unsettling path of provocative irony that ever before. … Seeking answers to these questions might well provide deeper insights into the work…”
In this account by Myun-Whun Chung and his remarkable South Korean forces, the first movement, marked Andante comodo (accommodatingly) does not drag, nor is it full of foreboding. A sense of arrhythmia is certainly not missing, but the overall manner is forward moving, questing, and wonderfully lyrical, due in no small measure to the Seoul Philharmonic’s very fine string section. While world-weariness is an inescapable ingredient (the big outburst with trombones and timpani is as chilling as it should be) what characterises Chung’s reading, above all, is a sense of consolation, of optimism, and of joy at being alive, which comes across touchingly, albeit fleetingly, in the horn-flute dialogue towards the close.
After the Ländler-like opening of the second movement, with its chirping woodwinds and jocund accents, the waltz episode goes at infectious pace; but, notwithstanding subsequent passages of quasi-bucolic tranquility, Chung leaves us in doubt that what we are experiencing is an astringent parody of both dances, delivered with enigmatic gusto.
The timing of the ‘Rondo-Burleske’ is not markedly different from those on recordings by Boulez or Haitink, say, but timings can be misleading. Here the third movement kicks off very fast – a surprising tempo maybe, but one that has real purpose: the calmer episode has all the greater impact because of what has preceded it. And the express tempo, returning for the exhilarating conclusion, in turn provides a stunning foil to the balm of the Adagio finale, from which not a hint of self-indulgence emerges here. It’s main melody, long-breathed and hymn-like, is all the more affecting because it flows with a song-like directness – different in character from the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, or the wondrous finale of the Third, but sharing with them deep wells of love. Chung has the good fortune, throughout, of excellent solo contributions. This recording is a worthy addition to the Mahler catalogue.