> Mahler Symphony 9 Barbirolli [TD]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.9 in D Major (1908-9)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir John Barbirolli
(Recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, on 10-11,14 & 18 January 1964)


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In 1963 Sir John Barbirolli gave a concert in Berlin with the Philharmonic that went into legend. He conducted them in Mahler's Ninth Symphony and virtually re-introduced a composer not greatly liked by the orchestra. Straight away they asked if they could record the piece with him and even though under contract to Deutsche Grammophon were released to EMI for sessions in 1964.

This is the second CD release of the recording but Iím surprised it has taken EMI as long as it has to release it in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series. If any EMI recording by Sir John deserves inclusion this is it. In my opinion it is the best Mahler recording he left us. I've always felt his view of the first movementís overall tempo and pacing to be as near definitive as you can get. There is deep yearning in the opening passage and yet all is carried along in an Andante comodo at the walking pace Mahler surely meant and which so suits the music. Note the unfashionable portamenti in the strings too. Not too much but enough for this surely to have been what reminded many in the orchestra of Furtwängler. Barbirolli is more passionate than many of his colleagues and yet he tempers this with a striking clarity in the in the contrapuntal lines that's a living example of a quotation of Bertrand Russell that Michael Kennedy found in Sir John's papers. "Nothing great is achieved without passion, but underneath the passion there should always be that large impersonal survey which sets limits to actions that our passions inspire." Passion with clear limits is what you get here and an even better illustration of this would be the long Development section, remarkable for how naturally expressive it sounds even at a tempo that seems quicker than many. The "collapse climax" at 201-203 arrives with a fearsome inevitability too, and then the "Leidenschaftlich" passage that follows it really is "passionate". Notice too the superb balancing of the magnificent Berlin strings, as much a tribute to the conductor as the engineers, I think. Listen also to the really depressed quality to the remarkable passage that follows where the muted trombones usher in a return of the "Lebwohl" motive prior to the final climax which is itself then driven home by the blackest of trombones, roaring out the fatal arrhythmia motive. As if all this wasn't enough, listen to how Barbirolli then takes the passage marked "Like a solemn funeral procession" and how he holds back his tempo for each step to make its best effect. Finally, in a crucial passage in the Recapitulation where flute and horn form alliance, Barbirolli recalls for me some of the innocence of the First Symphony. This is a touch of genius I have never heard under other conductors and this could not be more appropriate as Mahler sprinkled his sketches with references to "vanished days and scattered loves". Barbirolli was fifty-six before he touched a Mahler symphony. An example to the young blades who seem to want to record an entire cycle before they are thirty. I maintain that only passionate men who have seen life can conduct the Ninth like Barbirolli and that the first movement in his recording is so good because it seems complete: a cross section of everything the music contains. Others may scale heights and depths with more reach but no one holds everything in such near-perfect balance as Sir John

The second movement scherzo is as trenchant as you could want. There is forward movement allied to superb playing and notice the relish Barbirolli brings to the Tempo II waltz music. When the Ländler material gains the ascendancy later on you also cannot miss the swagger in the playing. Again I'm reminded how much the conductors of Barbirolli's generation had to tell us about music which under some of today's maestri can sound colourless by comparison. Only Bruno Walter "live" in 1938 gets to the black heart of the Rondo-Burlesque third movement but Barbirolli is closer than most to the frenzy we hear there. We are light years away from the passion and nostalgia of the first movement, of course. Under Barbirolli the third movement is full of pain and sharpness with again superb string playing from this great orchestra. True to his concern for that "impersonal survey" Barbirolli doesn't give in to the "Music from far away" interlude that is at the heart of the movement. In fact there's even a bright-eyed, optimistic quality to it. But then, as you listen further, you realise a world of great feeling in the string phrasing that only a Barbirolli could bring. When the main material finally bursts back he shows it's been changed profoundly by what we have just heard. It is almost as if the music is now commenting upon itself. A remarkable feeling to convey and something Barbirolli does in passages of his great recording of Elgarís Falstaff. Here in Mahler the Burleske unseats the Rondo and "goes for broke", as it should.

At the sessions Barbirolli insisted on recording the last movement at night because "such music should not be played in daylight". If he had been holding back until now in the fourth movement he lets all the emotion come out at last. However, such is his sure touch that even here it never gets the better of him. It never becomes tasteless which under a lesser man it might have done. There's a rare nobility in the first presentation of the great Adagio theme and listen to how the strings dig into their bows and their traditions. The passage beginning at bar 49, in effect the second presentation of the main adagio material, ushers in a long passage which under Barbirolli is of such overwhelming intensity that even after over thirty years of living with this great recording it always leaves me quite shattered. The final climax to the movement (and the entire work) has a desperate, questing quality. It just remains to say that the coda - that long dying away - contains phrasing by Barbirolli that will linger in your mind for hours afterwards. Others play the closing pages slower. Others stretch them on the rack. Barbirolli chooses, like Walter, to let his eloquence of phrasing, his feeling for the breathing of a singer, to carry the day.

I place this recording of the Ninth Symphony among the very best ever issued along with Haitink on Philips (50 464 714) reviewed here by myself and Simon Foster:


Klemperer on EMI (5 67036 2), Horenstein on Vox (CDX2 5509) and Walter on Sony (SM2K 64452). It just remains to say that this new issue of the Barbirolli preserves what was an excellent recorded balance for home listening. Quite close in, accentuating the odd error of playing caused, no doubt, by the long takes, but endlessly illuminating for the details of the counterpoint that it exposes. I have compared this newly remastered release with the previous version (EMI 72435679252) and can find no appreciable difference. Maybe on the very highest end of equipment there would be but to these ears there is little to distinguish them apart from a slight gain in clarity of detail in the quiet passages favouring the new version. If you already have the first release I donít think there is any need to replace it. This new issue simply restores the recording to the catalogue where it belongs and at medium price on a single disc it represents excellent value.

If you donít already own this great recording, one of the five or six best of this work ever taped, buy it immediately. It should be on every Mahleriteís shelf.

Tony Duggan

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