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Symphony No. 9 in D
Des Knaben Wunderhorn*

Jessye Norman* (Soprano), John Shirley-Quirk* (Baritone),
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
PHILIPS 50 464 714
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In a review in "Gramophone" in 1970 that great Mahlerian Deryck Cooke declared he had just heard the greatest Mahler Ninth on record. He was reviewing the then new LP recording by Bernard Haitink and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra on Philips. I can vividly remember that review and the influence it had on me as a young Mahler enthusiast finding my way through the record catalogues. Also the anticipation I felt after I had persuaded my local library to buy a copy of it. Cooke concluded his review by saying that in the Haitink recording he felt he wasn't faced with Barbirolli's (EMI), Walter's (Sony) or Klemperer's (EMI) Mahler Ninth, but with Mahler's Mahler Ninth. Perhaps the highest praise any critic can give. There is no question in my mind that after all these years this still is one of the greatest recordings of the work you can buy and I'm pleased Philips have decided to re-issue it in this new series.

Haitink takes great care with the opening material, a particular care with the rhythms of the motivic fragments especially, and one of the finest of all ears to the balancing of the various parts. This is all helped by a superb analogue recording, very much the kind of sound coming from the Concertgebouw in those days with less hall acoustic allowed for than we have become used to recently. All this means that, among other things, Mahler's high upper lines are superbly apparent at every climax, all of which arrive with splendid dynamic surges. Time after time Haitink is in Barbirolli's class at the balancing of the various elements in this movement. Characteristically, though, he is less passionate though he makes up for this in his attention to the subtle shades of debate that characterise this movement. There is no part of this immense statement of Mahler's state of mind at that time in his life when Haitink doesn't have something important to say about it. Take, for example, the "Leidenschaftlich" passage following the "collapse climax" at 201-203 where there is an almost Klemperer-like trenchancy to the music. Following this the wisps of theme that play around the muted trombones prior to the "Lebwohl" lead-back sound especially desolate and remote giving lie to thoughts you occasionally encounter that Haitink is too safe a conductor in Mahler. At the main climactic passage of the movement listen to the wonderful Concertgebouw strings tumbling all over the music, pitching into a superbly dramatic resolution, as fine as any. I must also pay tribute to the deepest of bells Haitink's percussionist makes use of. I assure you, once you hear these in this recording you never want to hear any other kind. The coda of the movement finds Haitink in a surprisingly dreamy mood with Mahler's unique orchestration coming to us as though through the very veil of memory itself. A very interesting presentation indeed with horns especially evocative.

The second movement Ländler finds the massed strings all country-dance and rough-hewn with those crucial tempo changes marked well. Notice also how the woodwinds seem to be really mocking us in a way few recordings manage and one of the characteristic sounds you will take away. This is so much the cruel parody of the Ländler that I think Mahler wanted and which so many miss. In many ways I find Haitink to be giving the same kind of performance of this movement Michael Gielen did later - cutting and rebarbative. The crucial difference, however, is that Haitink injects that little bit more humanity and humour. He certainly has the finer orchestra and it should go without saying that hearing one of the greatest Mahler ensembles playing this music at the height of their own powers is an experience in itself. The coda is masterly - ironic, poisonous, unsettling - it sets us up for the Rondo Burlesque splendidly. Here too Haitink is in the same neck of the woods as Gielen but, again, with that little bit more humanity. Again the orchestra's contribution cannot be praised too highly and this allows us to hear echoes from Das Lied Von Der Erde in the maelstrom. By some wonderful alchemy Haitink also manages to achieve what few others do and that is a delivery of the central interlude that seems to fit perfectly. It's neither too fast in that it loses its power to move nor too slow that it impedes the structural integrity of the whole. Following this the anarchic frenzy of the Rondo's return concludes this movement unforgettably.

Haitink crowns his recording with a performance of the last movement of rich eloquence, more than worthy to stand beside the greatest. He succeeds in spite of never having to pull the music around, letting it speak for itself and relying on the great playing of his orchestra; not least in the second presentation of the main material (bars 49-107) which has a cohesion like a microcosm of the whole movement. Notice especially at the start of this passage how Haitink keeps the principal horn under control where many will give the player his head. It's an example of Haitink's care and means that when more heft is needed, as at the movement's great horn-led peroration at the main climax, the sheer power of the moment lands even more weightily on us. A case of keeping your powder dry until you need it, examples of which can be found right the way through this great recording. Also notice how Haitink gets his violinists to play the three great descending sforzandi that precede it almost as three separate notes. In my experience the only other conductor to also produce this special effect was Jascha Horenstein (Music & Arts or Vox). Finally in the closing pages the sense of desolation is remarkable, but with the thread maintained even though Mahler's slower and slower markings tell.

This time around the Ninth has a coupling and a generous one in songs from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn". However, I cannot imagine anyone buying this release just for the songs, which is just as well because John Shirley-Quirk is too dull and Jessye Norman too cultured to make Mahler's ironies really tell. Nevertheless there is much to enjoy in Haitink and his orchestra in music that is at the backbone of Mahler's art, even though there are much better versions of these songs in versions conducted by Prohaska (Vanguard), Szell (EMI) and Morris (IMP).

One of the greatest recordings of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, remastered and rightly restored to the catalogue.

Tony Duggan

Resident Mahler expert, Tony Duggan, reviews this excellent 2 CD reissue from Philips above. This is not intended as an alternative review, more an opportunity to discuss some of the history and significance of this, one of the most celebrated of the 'Mahler Renaissance' recordings from the 1960s and a performance of the Ninth Symphony which to many ears - certainly to those of the late Deryck Cooke - stood clearly above what had gone before.

By 1960 all the symphonies of Mahler were available on LP. There were some marvellous versions to be had, particularly from the pre and post war mono eras. Kubelik's First from Vienna, Walter's Second from New York, Kletzki's Fourth from London (The Philharmonia, also recorded in stereo), Walter's Fifth also from New York, Scherchen's Seventh from the Vienna SOO, and Walter's pioneering 1938 Ninth from Vienna were perhaps among the finest examples, although completely different lists could easily be made by other Mahler devotees.

Throughout the decade of the 1960s, each of the nine symphonies, with a remarkable consistency, received at least one recording, using the fast improving stereo sound technology, which seemed to set new standards. Here one thinks of Solti's LSO account of the First, Klemperer's 1961/2 Second for EMI, Leinsdorf's fine Third (only to be eclipsed in 1970 by that greatest of all Thirds from Horenstein), Szell's Fourth, Barbirolli's Fifth (avoid the Great Recordings of the Century version which has gone back to the original master which retains the missing horn entry so brilliantly replaced by producer Andrew Keener and to be heard on all other CD incarnations), Bernstein's 1967 Sixth, likewise his 1965 Seventh and Haitink's 1969 Ninth, the subject of this review. Only the Eighth was not so blessed - but it didn't have to wait for long; both Georg Solti and Wyn Morris had done their magic by 1972.

These were heady days! Deryck Cooke in the pages of Gramophone declared the Haitink ninth to be '.. the ideal ninth, beyond any criticism." A dangerous statement for any critic to make one might think, but there were reasons beyond just the fine performance captured on the LPs which led him to make such a claim.

Throughout the sixties the use of multi-tracking (often thought of as an American predilection, but regularly used in Europe too, if perhaps less blatantly) was tending to mutilate Mozart and belittle Beethoven. The sense of aural depth and naturalness which was increasingly demanded from the late 1970s was not considered any sort of issue in the sixties. Nevertheless sound engineers at this time were becoming increasingly aware that accuracy of timbre, a realistic sound stage and a certain 'concert hall fidelity' had to be achieved alongside the great benefit of multi microphone multi-tracking: the ability to create ideal balances in complex orchestral music. Perhaps the Haitink ninth should be regarded as achieving the ultimate 'state of the art' of such an approach, and, moreover, in the service of music that needed it most. Cooke doubtless regarded every note, every line from every instrument or section as being of fundamental importance in this music. Yet so many recordings had previously failed to allow these very sounds to emerge through the overall texture. Here, at last, they did, and it was, for him, a dream come true.

Examples can be found at 2:27 - 2:38 in the first movement where the bassoon and later the remainder of the woodwind enrich the music's argument. At 11.07 the sheer dominance of the trumpet creates a marvellous frisson and the clarity of the 'cello and bass lines adds enormously to the whole, throughout the symphony.

It was, however, still the era of the LP. It could be argued that the use of multi-tracking was a necessary method of enlivening the sound for a system of reproduction that stretched back to the very beginning of recorded sound - needle in groove. Certainly the sound engineers of the time could never have envisioned digital sound, 96kHz or otherwise. Sounds that they knew would not be heard on most LP 'record players' (however 'Hi-Fi') were allowed to remain safely on the master tape. Only today's digital remastering is unmasking them. There is a creak (probably a defective chair) that occurs rather regularly from the 'cello or bass section. In the second movement Haitink can be clearly heard encouraging his 'cello section all too vocally at 0:59.

Does any of this really matter? Of course not. Indeed the musical sterility of many early digital recordings - usually considered to be an outcome of the sound engineers still climbing up the new technology learning curve - may also be due to the urgent request to the players to be as still as possible and to be careful not to make extra-musical noises. Such a demand was hardly going to allow the musicians to give of their all!

So should Haitink's Mahler ninth symphony still be 'beyond criticism'? The digital remastering does also point to some occasional slips and errors in the performance that would, today, be resolved with further takes. The sour clarinet entry at 24:22 (first movement) would be fixed, as would the improbably forward balance of the viola at 10:12 in the second movement.

Philips has done a fine job with this reissue - the texts of the songs are safely printed in the booklet and the newly commissioned notes from Stephen Pettitt are fascinating. Only the ridiculously short break of six seconds between symphony and songs has to be deplored and it is a pity that such a special release fails to give the original recording dates.

There is one aspect of this budget priced series which appears to bring in something entirely new and to be greatly welcomed. Many collectors have been puzzled by the fact that a CD of solo violin music should cost the same as a Mahler symphony, or more relevantly, a 2 CD set of a symphony should be identically priced to a 2 CD opera set - with libretto and essays taking on the size of a small paperback book. Company accountants doubtless fall back on arguments such as 'it's simpler this way' or 'swings and roundabouts'. But Philips has bravely bucked this trend (certainly here in the UK) where this Mahler set has been seen at HMV in London at £9.99, whereas Colin Davis' Tosca, in the same series, with double jewel case and libretto-book retails at £13.99. Opera lovers should not complain; Mahler fans have every reason to rejoice.

Simon Foster

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