> Mahler Symphony 9 Walter 8110852 [TD]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.9 in D Minor (1908-1909)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Recorded "live" on 16th January 1938 in the Musikverein,Vienna
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110852 [70.43]


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Anyone interested in the history of this symphony needs to have at least one version of this "live" 1938 recording by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter. So different, and therefore so illuminating, from his later stereo remake in California in 1961. Over and above any details of playing and interpretation this is a document of a unique occasion also. Eight weeks after this performance took place Austria became part of Hitlerís Third Reich. Remember that when you sense the presence of the audience and what must have been on their minds - fear or anticipation, depending on their political viewpoint. Walter fled westward after this performance and many of the players in the orchestra would not be in their places when concerts resumed after the war. So here is the end of an era commemorated by the performance of a work that was commemorating the end of another. There is a moment in the first movement, 27 bars from the end, when the whole orchestra is silent but for the solo flute descending and you can nearly touch the atmosphere in the hall. It is aspects like these that give recordings like this their unique quality; one clearly recognised by Walter himself when producer Fred Gaisberg played him test pressings in Paris a few weeks later. There were tears in the delighted conductorís eyes as he gave Fred Gaisberg the clearance to release the recording commercially.

Many Mahlerites will know the performance. However, there are always new converts to the cause who need to know why it is held so dear by so many. Tempo-wise the first movement seems to me near ideal though many accustomed to the more indulgent, more apparently moulded, approach to Mahler that has taken over in the last twenty or thirty years might disagree. This is walking pace with a singing line that seems as though it's taken in one breath and sung. The strings of the old pre-war Vienna Philharmonic also ache with nostalgia and seem to have the flexibility of the human voice as Walter leads them into his interpretation. But there is also a more restless and cumulatively unsettling mood that really only becomes apparent by the end. You can forget the moments of imbalance in the sound level or the limited sonic generally. Or at least you should if music means more to you than sound. The second movement is a true rustic Ländler, harsh and stomping, almost "cheap", reminding us that those conductors and orchestras who "prettify" Mahler, smooth his sharp edges off, do him no favours. Hear the bows dig into the strings like village fiddlers at some Upper Austrian hop. It isn't rushed either, as it often is. Contemporary conductors of this work should really be made to sit down and hear it before they arrive on their podiums.

By the arrival of the Rondo Burleske third movement it must be admitted that the strain is beginning to tell on the VPO. In one sense this is no bad thing as it adds to the feeling of a world going smash, which it was about to do outside the concert hall in the same way as it did a few years after Mahler wrote the symphony. The orchestra, who can't have played this all that often, hang on for dear life but I think this only adds to the tension, the feeling of the concert hall as theatre. Are they going to make it? Yes, but it's a close-run thing. You really wouldn't want to hear this too often. But then this is not and never could be a reference version as the fluffs and imprecision irritate even me at times. But hold it against some of the "squeaky-clean" digital studio versions of later years and it just demands its place in the profile of recordings. In some ways the Adagio last movement is a bit of a disappointment even for an admirer of this performance. It is certainly the quickest you'll hear in overall tempo. The coda especially seems to flash by when held against Bernstein, Haitink, Horenstein and others. The first time I ever heard it (on the old World Record Club LP issue) I had to follow with a score to convince myself that nothing had been cut out. Nothing has, of course. Again itís just different from what you may be used to. It certainly seems to work in the context of the rest and the strings are just as glorious here as they were at the start, listened to through the ageing sonics, of course. I have often wondered whether Walter sensed that the audience were maybe losing concentration towards the end and hurried a little more than he might have done.

The recording was produced in the era before tape recordings by having two cutting styli running in relay. A non-playing member of the orchestra sat next to the engineer with a score so the gain control could be taken up and down to guard against distortion with a man in view behind the orchestra to signal when to switch on the current. With this Naxos release we now have four CD versions of this great old recording available. The others are on EMI Références (CDH 7630292), Dutton Laboratories (CDBP 9708) and Magic Talent. I donít have access to the Magic Talent version, neither can I vouch for its provenance, so my comparisons have been with the first three.

The Naxos and Dutton have great similarities. They are both "closer in" than the EMI, therefore more analytical. In the EMI my "seat" is in the gallery somewhere near the back of the hall whereas in the Dutton and the Naxos I am in the stalls nearer the front and the strands of the score are more apparent, instruments plainer, especially the solos. But there are two important differences between the Naxos and the Dutton that I think now rules one in and the other out of consideration. Firstly, the Dutton seems to have virtually eliminated the surface noise of the original 78rpm pressings. The label indicates this has been done with Cedar 2 software. Some people might think that this is a good thing, but I would advise them to think again. The gain, of course, is that people who dislike any surface donít have to hear it. But the loss is that the sound of the orchestra then seems slightly disembodied and lacking in atmosphere as a result. The Naxos, on the other hand, has retained a degree of surface from the discs and therefore also retained a crucial amount of atmosphere and a more believable bass line, especially in that famous hall acoustic. There is also a slightly harder edge to the violins high on the stave in the Dutton that doesnít seem to trouble the Naxos. What surface there is in the Naxos certainly didnít bother me as it is very gentle indeed and I think it provides an aural reference that the Dutton does not have. The other difference is that the Dutton seems to have "spread" the mono sound a little between the two speakers whereas the Naxos is much more centred - true mono, I think it can be called. I am neutral about this but there is no doubt that the Naxos is more faithful to the original in leaving the sound as it is. Of course, both these aspects say much for the philosophy of the two remastering engineers Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos and Michael Dutton for Dutton. Obert-Thorn has worked from pre-war RCA Victor Gold pressings and though Dutton doesnít identify his source material I would suspect there was little difference in the sound of the pressings he used and that itís just that Mark Obert-Thorn has, as usual, been less interventionist with them. Of the two I certainly prefer the Naxos as it is more natural sounding, more rounded, easier on the ear especially in the area of the high frequencies.

However, there is still the EMI Références version to consider. This was remastered by the late Keith Hardwick and whilst it is possible that he too may have intervened more than Obert-Thorn did I do still prefer the version that Hardwick has produced and for one very crucial reason. In spite of the fact that the Naxos and the Dutton are more analytical, the EMI Références version gives a better feeling of "being there" and in a recording like this I find that a clincher. There is a degree more reverberation, a degree more character to the bass line too and a sweeter sound to the strings, the violins especially so. Since they are held in a slightly more distant perspective we even manage to have a better treble top than the Naxos without the ear-tiring glare of the Dutton. Itís a compromise that I prefer. I am perfectly prepared to believe that some of this is the result of artificial enhancement on the part of Keith Hardwick. However, it is also possible that since this is the official EMI reissue he had access to the masters in the EMI archive that Obert-Thorn and Dutton did not. Whatever the reasons, what I hear on the EMI Références version, for me, more than approximates to the kind of sound I have heard coming from other recordings made in this hall and so I will stick with that. In spite of the profound differences outlined the Naxos and the Dutton are closer to each other than they are to the EMI.

If you already have the EMI Références version my advice is to stick with it. If, however, you want in addition to it a slightly different sound perspective on the performance then buy the Naxos with confidence. The price is right, after all. If, on the other hand, you have no version of this recording in your collection and now want one my advice is to buy the EMI Références version if you are able to. I add that caveat because it has been out for some time and you never know these days whether a recording like this will disappear or be so hard to find that you give up. In that case go for the Naxos. It will certainly be easier to find and will be cheaper and you will have a version of this wonderful occasion to last you a lifetime. Ideally try to sample the two if you can. These matters are very subjective and it is possible you may disagree with me. What I have tried to do is describe what I hear and separate that from my opinion.

A fine new version of this legendary recording.

Tony Duggan


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