A confession： Mahler Ninth is a centerpiece that has constantly taken my heart and soul like no other music, and as such I can’t normally review recordings and concerts of the symphony without consuming much of my energy, without much thought and preparation. Japanese seem to love it to death ... Mahler Ninth appears in almost every orchestra’s program and there are multiple recordings by the domestic conductors/orchestra for sale currently. I can reason why the symphony is so popular in that country - it’s the second greatest piece of the 20th century according to some Japanese music critics’ polls. As for me, I’ve become nearly immune to ’the emotional punch’ (some may call it a disease) it’s supposed to carry and love the modern, albeit revolutionary, sound world of the music. Still, I could be easily worn out talking about the music, let alone reviewing particular recordings or concerts. So, I will try to keep my view of last Friday’s concert of Mahler Ninth Symphony at Seoul Arts Center, Republic of Korea, simple and straight.
Chung’s M9th was sensible, well balanced, emotionally fully charged, and above all musically well shaped. The great first movement was a case in point. The opening measures taken at a tempo much slower than normal, unfolded with all the necessary gravitas and a sense of hesitation, an interpretive point that might seem out of place at first but would prove to make sense as the movement proceeds. When it came to great climaxes (there are three, not four as some might claim, in this movement), Chung didn’t usher all his angst and power at once. Rather, he wisely and efficiently let the music speak for itself, let them come out as naturally as one can imagine; at the height of the first climax that culminates with a trumpet fanfare he asked the timpani roll away ever so smoothly making it merge seamlessly into the following passage. In fact, the timpani, always crisp but authoritative and powerful, was outstanding throughout the performance. So were the trumpet and horn solos who not a single time put their feet wrongly. Much of he same could be said of the SPO percussion including tam tam, bass drum, bells, and cymbal. Those who know the music inside out probably know what I mean; Mahler Ninth would be nothing if it were not for these instruments. The point is, in such a profound and subtle work as Mahler Ninth, every detail and instruction counts. Every instrument, however small its role may appear in the score, counts. The British conductor Ben Zander makes exactly this point in his lecture, ”As much a collective effort it requires from the orchestra, Mahler Ninth asks for individual players who can play as if the piece was written for their instruments alone.”
The two middle movements were surprisingly feet fleet, full of wicked humor and lively, inventive touches. For instance, at the start of II. SPO strings attacked each note with a full, sustained bowing, instead of giving it a staccato-like treatment as usual. Again, the timpani and horn got everything right including the tricky cross rhythm in the coda. But the most shocking of the performance came in the Rondo Burleske. That SPO could follow the conductor’s myriad, demanding instructions in every peak and valley of the score at such a breakneck speed was akin to a miracle. Well, these are technical things, but how about musical elements? Were they delivered as Mahler intended? Was the inevitable connection all the way back to the opening movement there? No matter how clumsy and crazy they may sound amid the whirlwind of dances and mockery? Melancholy, bitterness, poignancy, …. were they all there? Yes, unmistakably!
The great Adagio began with an unusually hefty volume in the strings sound, sending a signal that it might be the only and last time we’ll hear them so rich and confident but never again for the rest of the movement. As I expected, Chung masterfully and gradually turned down the volume as the movement went on, culminating in one of the most hushed codas attached to the Finale I could ever recall. Alas, after the last note faded away Chung didn’t observe the silence long enough …. It would have been greater if he had prolonged it tad longer, for another 5 seconds or so. At any rate, so mesmerized by the interpretation and the impeccable playing the audience remained exactly as the pre-announcement had requested, i.e., silent!
It is pointless to mention about the playing of Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. By now they had turned themselves into one of the best ensembles in the world, easily matching with and even surpassing the best orchestras in Japan. As pointed out earlier, the importance of having perfect soloists couldn’t be emphasized enough and Chung, who knew this more than anyone else, made sure he gets the best out of the lot. And he did get them absolutely right.
So many things under Chung’s hands went well that I would be nitpicking if I were to go on any further. Suffices to say that Mo Chung had lots of gestures in his sleeves but it had a clear direction and it showed. Overall, it reminded me of an outstanding concert by Edo de Waart and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the early 80s, but Chung’s was more intense and had more new things to say about this timeless masterpiece. Happily, the concert was preserved in its entirety for a CD release by the recording producer Michael Fine and Deutsche Grammophon.
As for the CD, it is warm and detailed without any hint of digital recording. That is, it sounds very much like a vintage analog recording minus surface noises.
Kudos to all involved, Chung’s goes straight to the top of the mountain Everest of Mahler Ninths.