“Do not go gentle into that good night...”. However we choose to interpret Dylan Thomas’s words, they seem appropriate to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, even if he went on to draft if not complete a Tenth.
Recorded shortly before his ninety-first birthday (and, at the time of writing this, he remains very concert-active and music-hungry) Herbert Blomstedt lets Mahler’s music do all the talking, with of course his own certainty of intent evident in every bar, securing playing of sear, sensitivity, eloquence and intensity; and, whether corporate or solo (invidious to mention the wonderful horn-playing, or flute), the Bamberg Symphony is caught up in every aspect of Mahler’s complex invention, scoring and emotions, Blomstedt distilling the detail as if it were chamber music if sparing us nothing in the most-disturbing of climaxes.
There is a feeling of rightness throughout this account – the art that wholly persuades for its duration and leaves no room for comparisons, however distinguished any one is, although Haitink and Kubelík come to mind. Thus the first movement (arguably Mahler’s greatest single achievement) is a perfect judgement of Andante comodo, ideally ‘accommodating’ of the music’s serenity and fire, its volatility, power, passion, inner retreats, and an inescapable shadow of darkness, the fear of the unknown. From Blomstedt, without exaggerating any one aspect, the music sends chills down the listener’s spine and taps into Mahler’s rage as a frightening unleashing of human determination ... while ensuring that this is also the genuine first movement of a Symphony.
Following which the rustic Ländler of the second movement and the disruptions heaped upon it are gleefully conjured, while musically Blomstedt ensures they are several sides of the same coin, not so much cavorting wildly as acerbically edged (a wolf-like contrabassoon creeps out from the forest in the concluding bars). With the ‘Rondo-Burleske’ as impassive as it is satirical (Blomstedt sticks to his stoical single-minded course, which may disappoint), and with a final Adagio that looks beyond this World with a mix of acceptance yet hope, then transcending into “the dying of the light”, this Mahler 9 is quite something.
Good housekeeping means a mention for the recording (made in collaboration with Bavarian Radio), which, in a spacious acoustic and with a very quiet audience, is fully revealing of Blomstedt’s concerns for dynamics and details, and also that he employs antiphonal violins (basses to the left) – mandatory in this music. Maybe the Symphony could have been accommodated on one disc (if not, the first movement should stand alone) ... but ... just occasionally something comes along that makes you rethink a piece of music, about what great artistry really is, and, frankly, Life itself ... Blomstedt’s Mahler 9 is one such.