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18.12.09

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.9 (Part 2)


This continues Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.9 (Part 1)


Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life, Palais Stoclet Frieze


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Mahler, Sy.9, Bernstein / NYPh
Sony

UK | DE | FR

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Mahler, Sy.9, Bernstein / WPh
DG

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Mahler, Sy.9, Bernstein / BPh
DG

UK | DE | FR
The Ninth Symphony was, more so than the unfinished Tenth, Mahler’s ‘Gate to Modernity’ for Leonard Bernstein. Riccardo Chailly likens it to Schoenberg’s Kammersinfonie and draws analogies to Alban Berg’s Wozzek. (A link exists: Mahler was at the premiere of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony in 1906 and he recognized the future in what he heard.) Christoph Eschenbach makes much of the eleven-tone row flute solo in the first movement, capped with the twelfth tone coming from the violin in the form of a hovering (“schwebend”) F sharp. Bernstein’s lectures on, and interpretations of, Mahler’s last finished symphony changed the way many people have thought and still think about the work. He may have read too much “Farewell from the World” nostalgia into the piece, projected his own wistful longing about the death of tonality onto Mahler, and even heard Mahler’s irregular, waning heartbeat in the first movement’s rhythm, but his advocacy helped make the 9th a less neglected, more often performed symphony.

None of Bernstein’s recordings—Amsterdam (interminable languor, DG, 1986) or New York (nervously energetic, Sony, 1965)—make this list, but in a way his second recoding—with the Berlin Philharmonic from 1979—is presented in the two Karajan recordings. It was Bernstein (and before that John Barbirolli) who, in his one and only appearance with Karajan’s orchestra, practiced this with the Berlin Philharmonic, de facto rehearsing them for Karajan’s two subsequent recordings. The captured live performance is one of those recordings where the (sense of) occasion and the relative difficultly in obtaining it (it has been out of print in North America for several years) helped build a reputation that goes well beyond its considerable merits. Apart from being fairly exciting and generally wonderful, it is also borderline lugubrious, sloppier than should be, and altogether a few notches short of spell-binding.


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Mahler, Sy.9, Karajan/ BPh (live)
DG

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Mahler, Sy.9, Karajan / BPh (studio)
DG Gold

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The top-choice, albeit with a caveat for the North-American market, might still be the second of HvK’s recordings: This one—live from the Berliner Festwochen in 1982 with his, now sufficiently Mahler-9 trained, Berlin Philharmonic—jumped on top of the heap when it came out and was never quite nudged off. Perhaps this is the reason it is still in its original DG Karajan Gold edition on two full-priced discs. It is rather similar to Karajan’s studio recording from the year before, but adds a little more intensity to it all, holds its breath a little more fervently in the last movement (Karajan holds that 28-minute-arch as beautifully as no one else, save Tilson-Thomas), is a little tauter, a little more petulant in the third movement, more sun-embracing in the finale.

Incidentally the all digital sound is not better than the ADD recording from ‘81 where the beautifully captured warm analogue sound (in line with the subtly more relaxed interpretation) avoided that hint of digital glare. Between the performances, the later one gets the nod. But the studio recording on a DG 2CD set—also with the Berlin Philharmonic—is not only more reasonably priced, it also comes with one of the most beautiful sets of the Kindertotenlieder and truly sublime Rückert-Lieder with a radiant, strong and passionate Christa Ludwig at her absolute height in 1975… which makes the decision to go for the live recording even more difficult. Re-issued at mid price (just shy of 83 minutes, even the DG engineers won’t be able to squeeze it onto one disc), and perhaps newly re-mastered, Karajan II would be an obvious first choice. As it is, it might yield to Karajan I or other competitors.


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Mahler, Sy.9, MTT / SFS
SFS Media


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Such as might be the gentle, beautiful Michael Tilson-Thomas recording (SFS Media, review here) or the straight forward, sensitive Bernard Haitink (Concertgebouw, Philips Duo) which also invites us with its inclusion of a great set of Das Lied von der Erde. Bruno Walter, conductor of that symphony’s premiere, offers an important historic document with his Vienna Philharmonic live recording from 1938, just months before the Anschluss. Not well played, though surprisingly well recorded (now on EMI’s Great Artists of the Century series), it is an interesting and important alternative, but surely no first, or even second choice. A coughed-through beginning and a rushed end, not allowing for any grandeur, does not help. His 1961 recording with the “Columbia Symphony Orchestra” (musicians of the LA Philharmonic) is in better sound (it’s first stereo recording of that symphony) and for a sight-reading exercise of a chamber-orchestra sized string section (12-10-8-6-4) the affair sounds quite respectable.

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Mahler, Sy.9, Abbado / BPh
DG

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Mahler, Sy.9, Sinopoli / Philharmonia
DG

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Mahler, Sy.9, Sinopoli / Dresden StKp
Profil Hänssler

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Revisiting Abbado for the review of the MTT recording, I was disappointed with its listlessness. Sinopoli’s recording (DG) is not available outside the complete box, but its snarling, growling tone appealed to me in the first movement like none other. The brass entry in the Andante comodo doesn’t just sound distinguishable from the preceding harp notes, it sounds like trees being felled. Even if the finale does not manage the same long lines as MTT, a re-issue of this would rank high on my list of favorite Ninths. Meanwhile we have a Ninth with Sinopoli from Dresden (Profil) to content ourselves with. It seems unfair to call Bernstein’s Ninth “interminable” and then praise Sinopoli’s whopping 93 (!) minute effort, but apart from being extraordinarily well played, it’s insouciantly idiosyncratic with the whispered glissandi, plenty rubato, poignant portamenti… Sinopoli leaves his fingerprints all over the score, but I can’t help but find the performance very endearing precisely for those reasons. But this is one incident where I wish that the applause had not been captured on disc, though… who wants to hear clapping after the last hushed tones of that finale have stopped resonating?! The only other recording that is as broad as Sinopoli-Dresden is James Levine’s with the Munich Philharmonic. Ear-witnesses tell me it was the best Mahler experience they’ve ever had and accordingly love the recording (Oehms). I have no doubt that the 32+ minute finale must have been something to behold at the Philharmonic Hall… but on disc it can’t quite re-create the momentous occasion.

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Mahler, Sy.9, Chailly / RCO
Decca


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Mahler, Sy.9, Gielen / SWRSO
Hänssler

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Mahler, Sy.9, Rattle / BPh
EMI

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Ozawa’s Saito Kinen recording (Sony), also not available in this country, musters more intensity than Abbado (then again, everyone does) and is a little grittier than MTT and the relaxed, very expansive Chailly (Decca). For well behaved, but not comatose, ‘Mahler Nine’, Chailly and MTT are excellent choices. For a little more overt torment, Michael Gielen should be sampled. Together with the Sixth, it’s one of the best recordings in Gielen’s set. I find Rattle’s first Ninth (recorded live with the Vienna Philharmonic, EMI) one of the satisfactory recordings in his “It’s-not-a-cycle” cycle, but no more. Three inconclusive movements are followed by a finale that successfully trades for tension calm. His re-make with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) is a marked improvement. All the disparate voices scurry about audibly in the first movement, the dark Scherzo kicks like a wildebeest, the finale hovers, hovers, hovers… my favorite Rattle contribution to Mahler.

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Mahler, Sy.9, Ančerl / CzPO
Supraphon

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Mahler, Sy.9, Boulez / CSO
DG

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A riveting first movement comes from Karel Ančerl (Supraphon, Karel Ančerl Gold Edition v.33), the opening of the fourth movement has that fist-shaking intensity, that inexorable grip that forces you to protrude your jaw, close your eyes, and wish you were conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in that moment and passage. The flowing lines are not as unbroken as with MTT or Chailly—but the climaxes within are superb. Pierre Boulez’ first movement has the enthralling element in common with Ančerl, his inner movements are pleasantly ambiguous: not at all the stereotype of scorn and satire. The Chicago Symphony plays splendidly under Boulez, which is to say: with all its usual glory, except also tasteful. Unfortunately Boulez’ last movement goes a little too far in avoiding stereotypes: at just over 21 minutes the ‘sublime arc’ becomes a breezy affair, there is no danger of it ever collapsing and consequently no stirring relieve afterwards, when it hasn’t. If you are missing Barbirolli’s famous Berlin recording (EMI, oop?) on this list, it’s because even after dozens of listens, I have still not managed to form much of an opinion about it.



Mahler 9 Choices


1. Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic, DG Gold (live)

2. Michael Gielen, SWRSO, Hänssler

3. Karel Ančerl, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Supraphon

4. Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw, Philips/Decca

5. Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic, EMI

6. Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic, DG (studio)

Mahler 9 SACD Choice

1. Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony, SFSMedia



The font used in the title is "ITC Stocklet Bold"


Continued here: Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.10 (Part 1)

Overview of the whole Mahler Survey on ionarts at this link.



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