The Munich Philharmonic is better known for its Bruckner than its Mahler - Sergiu Celibidache and Günter Wand, the two conductors that shaped the recent history of the Munich Philharmonic most, rarely, if ever, touched the neurotic, restless music of Mahler and preferred the structure and spiritual conservatism of Bruckner. The current head of the "MPHIL", Christian Thielemann, too, is in the Bruckner-Strauss-Wagner camp that leaves Mahler more or less by the wayside.
M9 - Levine, MPHIL
M9 - Tilson Thomas, San Francisco
M9 - Maderna, BBC SO
M9 - Sinopoli, Philharmonia
M9 - Gielen, SWR SO
Composer/Conductor Peter Ruzicka (*1948), artistic director of the Salzburg Festival between 2001 and 2006, programmed the Ninth with the MPHIL alongside his own "Memorial", a "Requiem without words for Giuseppe Sinopoli", his friend who died mid-Aida on April 20th, 2001. "Memorial" with its musical reference of G, E-flat, E, E, E-flat (G-s-e-e.S. in the German notation) has a whiff of amplified Ligeti, produces a wincing of strings, not unlike a breaking train coming to an arduous halt. Pools of rest erupt in moments of explosive frenzy of percussion and brass that come as quickly as they recede. Its aggressive, frantic tail of a conclusion marks the apex of "Memorial" before an irregular, strained, and finally dying heartbeat faints and fades away gently with the work. One need not have known that Sinopoli suffered a heart attack during that fatal Aida to discern the meaning of this very literal tribute. "Memorial" is an amorphous, atmospheric work that, with some imagination and good-will, could be considered ethereally beautiful... but not likely ever to arouse much more than polite applause from an audience expecting Mahler.
As it were, Ruzicka's Mahler was not much easier to comprehend. The music still had all its power to fascinate and delight, but it did so with three quarters confusion and one quarter pleasing. The opening was extremely calm and 'put down', perhaps even stilted. It was, not unusual for conductors that are also (modernist) composers (consider the fine recording of Bruno Maderna [BBC Legends], but also of Gielen [Hänssler] and Sinopoli [DG]), a performance that highlighted and separated individual voices. But the sum of the individual parts did not again make for a cohesive whole. Disorientation set in, which may be a fine experience if it forces you to pay attention to otherwise over-heard elements... but it doesn't do the symphony any favors in the long run. Odd tempo changes and abrupt ritardandi, strange balances in which the strings had to fight against the rest of the orchestra gave the second movement its momentum and an alienating character. For the second movement, its modern sounds and its sense of chaos, that was not devoid of appeal. An excellently playing battery of trombones and ever so beautiful bassoon contributions added where the consistently sub-par horn section detracted.
The third movement sounded downright cacophonic, brought vigor bordering shrillness, was short-breathed and restless, naturally hectic which resulted in it feeling hastened when it was likely taken slower than is usual. The fourth movement was played well enough and offered a harmonic whole that had, for better or worse, been absent before. Confident and never very tender, it cruised nearly to the end where, alas, the overarching line did not continue through the drop in energy in which the symphony exhausts itself. Fortunately even a few plodding bars cannot take away too much of the impression this movement has, at least on these ears.