Mahler’s Ninth is a death-haunted work but is filled, as Bruno Walter remarked, ‘with a sanctified feeling of departure’. Rarely has this symphony been shaped with such understanding and played with such selfless virtuosity as it was by Karajan and the BPO.
For this reissue the tapes have been picked over to open up the sound and do something about the early digital edginess of the strings. There’s still some occlusion at climaxes; and if those strings now seem more plasticky than fierce, it’s impossible to say whether the conductor would have approved. Karajan came late to Mahler and yet, until the release of his rather more fiercely recorded 1982 concert relay (below), he seemed content to regard this earlier studio performance as perhaps his finest achievement on disc.
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan – DG download 439 0242GHS2 (85' · DDD · Recorded live 1982) Buy from Amazon
Choice between the 1982 Karajan classic and the analogue studio recording is by no means easy. Both versions won Gramophone Awards in their day. This live performance remains a remarkable one, with a commitment to lucidity of sound and certainty of line. There’s nothing dispassionate about the way the Berlin Philharmonic tears into the Rondo-Burleske, the agogic touches of the analogue version ironed out without loss of intensity. True, Karajan doesn’t seek to emulate the passionate immediacy of a Barbirolli or a Bernstein but in his broadly conceived, gloriously played Adagio the sepulchral hush is as memorable as the eruptive climax. The finesse of the playing is unmatched.
Claudio Abbado began his career with Mahler and has been conducting the composer for his entire professional life. The Ninth and, above all, the Seventh, have consistently brought out the best in him.
Abbado’s previous recording of No 9, taped live in Vienna, is now only available in his box-set of the complete symphonies. Much acclaimed as an interpretation, its airless sound wasn’t to all tastes. This account is another multi-miked extravaganza with sonic shortcomings that are immediately apparent. The opening bars establish a wide-open sound stage (complete with hiss) that implodes with the appearance of the harp. That harp is always on the loud side, trumpets are almost always too reticent, the bass feels synthetic and there are troublesome changes of perspective. None of which is enough to nullify the obvious sincerity and conviction of a performance that simply gets better and better as it proceeds. This really is live music-making (the last big first movement climax at 16'54'' isn’t together), but the inner movements are beyond reproach, ideally paced and characterised, and superbly realised. The finale is content to plumb the depths in its own way – as sensitive as any of its celebrated rivals if without the point-scoring you may be used to.
Where some interpreters feel bound to choose between structural imperatives and subjective emotions, proffering either proto-Schoenbergian edginess or late-Romantic excess, Abbado has the confidence to eschew both the heavily saturated textures of his predecessors and the chilly rigidity of some of his own ‘modernist’ peers. Instead, his unaffected warmth allows everything to come through naturally. There remains something self-effacing about his musical personality. And yet there’s sunlight – and a certain tenderness – in this account of the Ninth that you won’t find anywhere else, a fluency and ease that’s something to marvel at. For those put off even now by the composer’s supposed vulgarity, Abbado’s readings constitute a convincing demonstration of the music’s integrity. The awed silence that greets the expiration of the Ninth may or may not be stage-managed but it seems genuine.
In his previous recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, made live with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1993, Simon Rattle tapped into the music’s emotional extremes to produce a surprisingly volatile reading full of precipitous accelerandos and wrenching ritardandos. There’s some of that volatility in this new account from Berlin, too, though it’s certainly less pronounced. There are places where more tenderness wouldn’t come amiss: the entrance of the solo violin in the first movement’s recapitulation is so much sweeter in Vienna. But Rattle and the Berliners are also capable of taking one’s breath away. Listen later in the same movement, as they gather the seemingly chaotic tangle of melodic filaments together, creating a single, gigantic, darkly radiant chord.
The rustic dances in the second movement have a strong, rough-hewn quality, even if they sound slightly dour when compared with the more gemütlich charm of, say, Abbado’s Berlin recording. Rattle doesn’t push hard in the Rondo-Burleske until the end; instead, he aims for clarity and articulateness, and scrupulously observes all the dynamic twists and turns. It’s an effective approach, though less adrenalin-pumping than Karajan.
It’s in the final Adagio, however, that Rattle and his orchestra make the most powerful impact. The strings sound gorgeous, of course, yet there’s grit as well as radiance in their tone. And it’s only in the final pages that the earthy impurities are leeched, leaving a breath-like purity that ebbs into rapt silence.
Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Claudio Abbado – Accentus DVD ACC20214; Blu-ray ACC10214 (95’ · NTSC · 1080i · 16:9 · PCM stereo, DTS 5.1 and DTS HD · 0 · Recorded live 2010) Buy from Amazon
This, Claudio Abbado’s fourth commercial recording of the work, is even more luminous, elegant and subtly integrated than its predecessors. In some recent Abbado interpretations, the Mediterranean fluency and rapid pacing implies a hint of complacency or, at least, a reluctance to wrestle with those darker and more tumultuous corners of the score. But it certainly isn’t the case with this Ninth, which can only be described as unmissable.
The first movement, marked Andante comodo, now seems ideally plotted, more spacious than in his previous DVD recording with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (EuroArts), with playing even more proficient than in his famous Berlin concert version (DG). There is perhaps less gain in the inner movements, where sceptics (who tend to be American with this conductor) will levy the charge that Mahler executed with the refinement and subtlety of chamber music is Mahler deracinated or Mahler-lite. Perhaps so, yet it hardly seems to matter: Abbado’s almost playful approach brings its own rewards. The great final Adagio, crowning the reading even more effectively than before, is as deeply affecting as one has ever heard it.
An interpretation that might seem too cool is in fact superbly gauged to provide maximal catharsis by the close – and there are intrusive post-performance shots of weeping concertgoers thrown in to prove it. When the music finally ends and, as in any truly great account of this highly affecting score, one feels that life itself is ebbing away, all present are held in awed silence. Even when the time comes for Abbado finally to lower his hands and for the players to put down their instruments, the spell remains unbroken for a while longer. The ovation when it comes is suitably tremendous.
The conductor looks as gaunt as ever but happy with what has been achieved. It is presumably Abbado who asked for the lights to be dimmed in the final stages. Did he want the so‑called multi-angle camera feature focused on the podium (in the first movement alone)? The sound is good if dryish still. Strongly recommended – but you knew that.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Bruno Walter – Dutton mono CDBP9708 (71' · ADD · Recorded live 1938) Buy from Amazon
This is an historic document – the Ninth’s first commercial recording conducted by its dedicatee. Few modern performances offer more intensity in the first movement (Rattle and Bernstein perhaps excepted). Don’t be taken aback by the technical lapses of the VPO; this is music-making in which scrappiness and fervour are indissolubly linked. The original surface noise is filtered to near inaudibility – Dutton’s restoration is a must-have.
Royal Stockholm PO / Alan Gilbert – BIS BIS-SACD1710 (82' · DDD) Buy from Amazon
Among familiar and celebrated accounts, Gilbert is aligned with Abbado rather than Haitink (or Bernstein rather than Giulini). Like Abbado (and very few others), he is exceedingly mindful of Mahler’s markings. On a technical level this must, surely, be the finest recording the work has received. This first recording of Gilbert conducting Mahler is rather more than work in progress: it is as exhausting and purifying an experience as any 80 minutes spent in your listening room has the right to be.
WDR SO, Cologne / Jukka-Pekka Saraste – Profil PH10035 (80' · DDD) Buy from Amazon
Mahler is all about weighing and balancing the extremes – heart and intellect, tempo and dynamics, tension and release – and Saraste’s judgement in such matters is sharp and instinctive. Yet it’s the tension between defiance and resignation that really shows Saraste’s perception and understanding. Mahler’s life passes before him in aching slow motion – not literally, as with Bernstein, but through the delicate balance of what is outwardly said and inwardly felt.
San Francisco SO / Michael Tilson Thomas – SFS Media/Avie 821936 0007-2 (90' · DDD/DSD · Recorded live 2004) Buy from Amazon
Michael Tilson Thomas immediately establishes a profoundly rapt atmosphere, and the orchestra take what can best be described as a bel canto approach, singing their lines with warmth and poised intensity. An unusually moving experience and one that marks yet another high-point in his cycle.
SWR SO, Stuttgart / Sir Roger Norrington – Hänssler Classic CD93 244 (72' · DDD · Recorded live 2009) Buy from Amazon
Norrington thinks this might be the first time since Bruno Walter’s famous 1938 VPO recording that a single live performance has come close to emulating the sound world of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the time of composition. He means, of course, ‘pure’ sound where phrasing and characterisation, not vibrato, dictate the expressive palette. Interesting to turn back the clock and experience an altogether more fundamental, unvarnished Mahler. You may miss the pure ‘theatre’ of Bernstein, the inwardness of Abbado and so on – but refresh your ears and your perceptions, and prepare to be surprised again.