WORKS: Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: WDR SO Köln/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
CATALOGUE NO: Profil PH 10035
It was always going to be a demanding transition from Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s crackling finale of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (reviewed June 2011) to the even more fraught first movement of the Ninth. So I shouldn’t have been too surprised if high hopes were not quite realised. It would have been asking much for the West German Radio strings to be as fine-tuned for this conductor as those of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra which has had longer to develop under his guidance.
At the start, they sound more wiry, if fine in the darker turbulences of the first two movements. But the congested sound makes Saraste’s volatile approach to the 25-or-so-minute first movement feel over-hasty. The last, sadly, is the failing point. Thick, vibrato-laden string tone here seems artificially applied and even the atmospherically performed dead zones of the music, in which the contrabassoon is especially eerie, can’t redeem this weakness, nor the masterly final fade.
It’s a pity, because there’s much to commend throughout, especially in the Scherzo and Rondo-Burleske where the woodwind have the lion’s share of character; the E flat clarinet shrieks are impressive indeed. A pity Saraste had to slip into a lower gear so soon before the trumpet unleashes heaven in the midst of hell, but the last spurt of horror is brilliantly done. Alas, competition is tough, and without a great string section like Claudio Abbado’s, this can only be an often admirable curiosity at best. David Nice