Straightaway I need to say that I have some issues with the recorded sound of this new version of Mahler's Ninth. It appears that the intention of the engineers has been to try to replicate a concert hall balance. But if you work on the assumption that listening in the home is itself an artificial experience then it is actually impossible truly to replicate such a thing on a recording. The only place to hear an actual concert hall balance is in the concert hall "live". Any sound that comes from listening to a CD, even on the highest end equipment, is going to be an artifice of one sort or another. All that the engineers can produce is an impression, an approximation of a concert hall. Whether they actually succeed will come down to individual taste. Let me call this as I hear it. What you have here is a very wide dynamic range, a very deep bass end and a light treble and no spotlighting of parts that is discernible. The effect of all this is to make it a difficult recording to judge in terms of setting a comfortable volume setting. Too low and you lose the thread in the quiet passages, too high and the loud passages shake the walls, especially when the bass end of this recording is so wide. This is the problem with recordings that appear to want to let you hear everything as you might in a concert hall. Some amount of balancing is actually needed. It's all a question of how much. There is an aspect to Alan Gilbert's interpretation that I will come to which the recorded sound actually connives in making more pronounced. But this is not the only negative aspect that leads me to rate this recording as I do. There are much older recordings that I believe balance this symphony better and allow you to hear details that are just lost on this recording as played on most equipment. Inner string parts, for example, especially middle range, do not tell as much as they do on what has been my two reference recordings for this review, the Berlin Philharmonic recordings by Barbirolli and Rattle on EMI. Recordings forty plus years apart. Mahler's screaming upper line of violins doesn't really make much impression and the high woodwind are disappointing also.
There are no recordings of Mahler's Ninth on the market which do not do this great work some justice and that remains so in this case. Even though I am not going to recommend you buy this one, if you have already done so then rest assured that you have a superbly played, substantially recorded and well interpreted version. It is just that there are so many already available that offer even more in each department and which will deliver even more for you over years. The greatest recordings of this work are quite old now. Barbirolli, Walter, Klemperer, Haitink, Horenstein and Bernstein all offer different, but equally valid, views that justify their longevity in the catalogue. Recently Simon Rattle's second recording, made with the Berlin Philharmonic, entered that pantheon - ignore his first effort with the Vienna Philharmonic, I implore you. In Berlin he seemed to have taken on virtues from different conductors in the most recent recorded sound and the admiration for that recording I expressed in my review of it has not diminished. Surprsing for me because, as my Mahler recordings survey and other reviews of his Mahler show, I am no unqualified admirer of Rattle's Mahler. In his second recording of the Ninth, however, he delivers something truly special. Claudio Abbado with the same orchestra is another to consider seriously in the more recent recordings. For the historically minded, Bruno Walter's "live" recording from 1938 still offers a remarkable experience too. However, in terms of interpretation, playing and recorded sound altogether, the Barbirolli and Rattle Berlin recordings remain for me benchmarks towards which everyone else must aspire and it is clear from the first few bars of this new recording that Alan Gilbert is not in the same league as either of them and short of them by some way.
The best way to describe my reaction overall to this recording is what I could call the overall philosophy behind how Gilbert appears to see it. It is as if for him the default mode of this work are the quiet, dreamy, slow passages in the first and last movements where Mahler seems to be looking in on himself. That for Gilbert it is these that represent the heart and core of the work and all the passages where the volume and tempi are both high are but interruptions. This is the aspect of his interpretation where I feel the recorded sound connives with him, because I cannot escape the impression that Gilbert has lavished all his care and attention on these passage and simply been content to let the rest get by on just superb and accurate playing alone. But Mahler's Ninth is the sum of all its parts and so this is just not good enough in order to render the whole picture. In the first movement, for example, the passage at 211-236 nowhere near approaches the "passionate" marking that Mahler gives to the strings. The higher strings do not tell enough for that to work either. Likewise there is insufficient power to the trombone outburst at the climax at 314-318 to shatter our world. Listen to Barbirolli or Rattle or Klemperer, also on EMI, to hear how it ought to sound. In the funeral march section following this passage again the strings are just too veiled, and in addition to this their tread of the march is blunted. Barbirolli gets this so well by carefully pacing the march steps. It is as if Gilbert just wishes the music would withdraw again into the introspection that he seems so anxious to convey. In the late passage where the scoring pares down to wind solos, flute and horn especially, the backward placing in the sound picture hinders us in realising Mahler's nostalgic charge. So more edge, emotion, aggression is needed in the animated passages to counterbalance the rest.
In the second movement Neville Cardus wrote of Mahler raping the
ländler and getting it with child. Here Alan Gilbert and
the ländler merely, as the Americans have it, "make
out". There needs to be a more percussive attack from the
strings when roused, more stamp in the ländler and less obvious
care to make sure all the notes are in place and sound beautiful.
Rattle is marvellous at this, Klemperer is also, as was Horenstein
and Walter in both his recordings. In the Barbirolli recording
there is one really nasty off-key blooper in this movement which
they must have considered retaking. The fact that they didn't
tells me they were not going to let the rest lose spontaneity
by doing so and so let it stand. Such an idea would, I am sure,
have been alien to the team behind this new recording. Examples
of players taking risks in this recording there are none. The
softer top of the recorded sound here doesn't help with the realisation
of this movement as a work of radical nerve, but I am willing
to believe that even in the flesh the strings were not earthy
enough. Gilbert does manage to deliver the three separate tempi
that Mahler asks for here in each dance form very well indeed.
So it is not all disappointment. But that soft-grained feeling
about the whole performance is never far away when compared with
other recordings. Is Alan Gilbert really so afraid of offending
us with some Mahlerian ugliness? It appears so. Take the closing
pages of this second movement. Here the woodwinds' chattering
and cheekiness should sound positively poisonous. Think of the
care that Bruno Walter lavished on getting that aspect right in
the rehearsal preserved from the sessions for his stereo recording
to see how important he believed this aspect to be and how it
should spill over into the third movement. There again the feeling
of being short-changed is the same with Gilbert. This is a Rondo
without the Burleske. Everything is far too polite and poised,
too organised and penned in when a comparison is brought in. Again
I feel Gilbert is a bit afraid to let the music rip with all its
sinister implications. Think of Bernstein's pernicious moods or,
even better, Walter in 1938 responding to the time that he and
his orchestra were playing in and so depicting two worlds about
to go smash - Mahler's world pre-World War 1 and the 1938 audience's
pre-World War 2. The VPO ensemble in 1938 might be challenged
at every bar and be in danger of falling to bits completely, but
you can smell the fear and taste the stress. Give me that every
time. The lyrical trio section suits Gilbert down to the ground,
however. He seems to love the fact that, again, the music has
gone in on itself and he can introspect to his heart's content.
The last movement is, like the others, beautifully played and not surprisingly suits Gilbert very well. The strings have a richness of sound that almost convinces. But I do miss a real singing line to the great melodies. The greatest conductors of this music are the opera conductors who can float a singing line and know where to breathe. Gilbert seems at this stage not to quite appreciate just how much this is the work of a song composer and a conductor of opera. There is also the problem of the slightly light treble that takes away any chance of hearing a really high edge from the violins. With that in place this music can both sear as well as console. Gilbert seems more concerned with the latter rather than the former. The quiet, withdrawn passages work better for Gilbert again, especially the long coda which he takes very slowly indeed and that is to be admired. Even though we are so withdrawn by what we hear that we nearly lose the thread which must be maintained until the very end. Maybe Gilbert is also too metrical in the woodwind solos. The aim of getting everything right to the point of perfection squeezing feeling from music that is at the cornerstone of Mahlerian eloquence. The great climax to the movement is where the bass end of the recording fills out the most and the sound is truly cavernous.
A disappointment, then. For a Mahler Ninth that goes to the core of the work by paying attention to every aspect of it and delivering it in a sound balance that lets you hear everything in equal measure, it is still necessary to look mostly to the past. Barbirolli (EMI Classics 5679252) remains my first choice by a very short head for exactly that followed closely by Rattle (EMI Classics 5012282) and, of course, Bruno Walter in 1938 (Dutton CDBP 9708) though ruled out of general recommendation because of limited sound quality but it is a unique performance for the ages. These also succeed over Gilbert for an aspect that I haven't mentioned above because at no point did I feel that Alan Gilbert had any idea that such a view was relevant. The feeling that this work is at the very tipping point of two ages of musical creativity. Barbirolli was not a conductor known for being a champion of the European avant garde and yet in his sound-world of Mahler's Ninth are all the pre-echoes of the twentieth century radicalism of Schoenberg and his circle that you could wish for and Gilbert can only dream of conveying. If anything Rattle is even more fully alive to this aspect. But Klemperer with his darker hues, Walter in 1960 with his lyrical ache and ländler awareness are there to provide equally convincing views too. There is also Jascha Horenstein on BBC Legends, all nihilistic despair, and Leonard Bernstein on DG with the Berlin Philharmonic with heart, mind, body and soul all on sleeve for the emotional ride of your life.
With so many great recordings available there is no need to miss the sheer power and eloquence of this great work on record, but nowhere in that elect list for Alan Gilbert. Not yet, anyway.