Gielen Conducts Mahler 9 and Boulez

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.9
Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna
Notations – I-IV & VII

SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Michael Gielen

Mahler and Notation VII recorded 27 June-4 July 2003 in the Konzerthaus, Freiburg; Rituel and Notations I-IV recorded 19-21 September 1990 in Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden

Reviewed by: Andrew Achenbach

Reviewed: December 2006
CD 93.098 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 10 minutes

Michael Gielen’s 1990 recording of Mahler 9 with the South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra on Intercord (now deleted, presumably) always was one of the single-disc front-runners.

On no account, however, should you deprive yourself of hearing this partnership’s 2003 remake, for the music-making is inspiring on every level. Not everyone may fancy the idea of the Boulez couplings which follow the symphony’s finale on the second CD (Gielen’s interpretation of the main work now clocks in at 84 minutes as against its predecessor’s 79), but so rivetingly does Gielen the composer-conductor lay bare the modernist roots of Mahler’s towering inspiration (without any recourse, I should add, to self-aggrandising antics or diminution in sheer emotional clout) that the juxtaposition is by no means as jarring as one might imagine. Not surprisingly, the hieratic, relentless tread of Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna finds Gielen in his element, while the performance of the Notations (extended orchestral transcriptions of five of the 12 movements that make up Boulez’s earliest published work, for solo piano dating from 1945) similarly combines iron grip and composure.

In the awesome battleground of the symphony’s opening movement Gielen’s formidable structural instincts do not desert him, yet at the same time climaxes hit home with overwhelming impact (unforgettably trenchant low wind and brass sonorities). As ever, Gielen’s preferred ‘old school’ orchestral layout – first and second fiddles seated on either side of the platform, string basses rear left, cellos centre-left, violas centre-right – is a huge boon in terms of textural transparency and solidity (curious though it may seem in the present context, I was reminded of the tremendous sense of scale, temperament and selfless authority of Handley’s benchmark Bax).

Hats off, too, to the SWR production team for such a satisfyingly ripe, naturally balanced sound picture. Gielen’s meticulous preparation pays particularly handsome dividends in the second movement. The opening paragraph has exactly the right ‘mud on boots’ gait, while the later stages attain a giddy momentum (try from around 12’30” onwards). I love the principal trumpet’s subtly expressive vibrato in the Rondo-Burleske’s trio section (here allowed plenty of time to blossom). The finale is unerringly well proportioned, its dialogue expounded with unswerving eloquence (listen out for some beautifully judged, piercingly ‘vocal’ portamento); the closing pages are sublimely inevitable, strong yet serene, and profoundly moving.

In summary, an uncommonly lucid, pungently characterised and enormously involving Ninth which, I’m convinced, will stand the test of time – and a ‘must hear’ for all true Mahlerians. Rumour has it that Gielen intends to stand down from the podium for good when he reaches his 80th-birthday in 2007 (20 July); on this evidence, he should be discouraged at all costs!

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