Mahler 9 – Bělohlávek

Symphony No.9

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 3 December, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Not due to take up his position as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony until the opening night of next year’s Proms, Jiří Bělohlávek has already had a long relationship with the Orchestra, not least as Principal Guest Conductor. Should this infer that a degree of familiarity could creep into this partnership’s music-making, then this fine Mahler 9 demonstrated exactly the opposite.

As previous BBC performances of Mahler’s 6th Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde have shown, Bělohlávek is a natural Mahlerian, a little understated if at least avoiding histrionics, but with a fine sense of tempo relationships and also the courage to take Mahler’s dynamic markings at face value.

These attributes pay particular dividends in the Mahler 9’s first movement. To some Bělohlávek’s approach may have seemed unduly leisurely, although throughout the half-hour span the narrative thread was never lost; a lucid exposition, then, with the persistent 2 against 3 rhythms, which give the music much of its angst, remarkably clarified. If there were one criticism, it would be a reluctance to ram home the main climaxes with the ‘highest force’. Yeats writes: “Things fall apart, the centre will not hold”, and Mahler’s climaxes are the musical equivalent.

The Ländler’s three tempos were conspicuously well chosen, relaxed in the first where the violins are directed to play ‘as fiddles’, decisively quicker in the second, and extremely tender in the third. More than in most performances, one sensed here that the Ländler and the Rondo-Burleske are closely linked; moments in the Ländler seem to look forward, the Rondo in turn being like a mirror held up and distorting the previous movement. In the Rondo the progressive increases in speed were precisely calibrated, perhaps a little too much so for the music’s elemental fury to be fully released, but this was playing of remarkable focus and security in music which all-too-frequently degenerates into a dash for the finishing line.

The crowning glory of this performance was the finale, with some exceptionally full-bodied playing from the strings (divided violins with cellos and basses to the left). It was as if any slight inhibitions from earlier were finally cast aside, the great descending string scale at the climax bringing a collective catharsis which has to come from within and cannot be rehearsed. What was also satisfying was the total security with which tension was maintained to the very last note of the concluding fade out – special credit here to Susan Monks’s sensitive cello solo. The protracted silence at the close spoke eloquently.

If not the last word on Mahler 9, then – some moments were a little too civilised for that – this was an impressive augury of things to come.

  • Concert recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast in “Afternoon Performance”

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