Symphony No. 9 in D
Des Knaben Wunderhorn*
Jessye Norman* (Soprano),
John Shirley-Quirk* (Baritone),
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
PHILIPS 50 464
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.
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
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
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
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.