Jonathan Nott’s Mahler cycle has now reached the fourth instalment.
Recoridngs have already been issued of the First Symphony (see
the Fifth Symphony (see review
and the Fourth (see review
This is the first in the series to come my way.
Before considering the performance I think a few words about the
recording itself may be helpful – I listened to these hybrid SACDs
as conventional CDs. When I first started listening I thought
that the sound appeared almost too close. In fact, I found that
my ears soon adjusted as the performance continued and that I
didn’t find the closeness to be as much of an issue on further
hearings. I suppose the effect is rather akin to sitting just
a few rows back from the stage in the concert hall. The orchestra
sounds very ‘present’. There certainly seems to be a good spread
of sound from one side of the platform, as it were, to the other
but I’m less sure that there’s adequate front-to-back perspective.
Another feature of the recording is that Nott has divided his
violins left and right – of which I heartily approve. However,
until the finale, where the strings dominate the scoring for much
of the time, I couldn’t hear much of the viola, cello or double
bass lines. In fact the strings as a whole are too easily swamped
by the wind and brass sections in the first three movements.
For comparison I put on Simon Rattle’s Berliner Philharmoniker
recording, which I so much admired in 2008 (see review
by Tony Duggan). Here too the recording is fairly close but much
more inner string detail is evident. I strongly suspect that the
Tudor engineers have used a limited microphone array in an effort
to present a truthful concert hall sound image whereas the EMI
team have probably used multiple microphones placed within or
above the orchestra in order to capture much more detail. I think
the Tudor sound does indeed present the sort of sound that you’d
hear in a concert hall – and Mahler’s scoring is very often wind-
and brass-heavy – and it depends whether you want a recording
for home listening to give you a concert hall perspective or whether
you want as much detail as possible.
So you might want to sample the recording before purchasing. However,
even if the sound is not quite your ideal – and, as I say, my
ears adjusted quite quickly – sonic considerations aren’t everything
here for Nott leads a fine performance of this magnificent, complex
He takes a fairly spacious view of I. In fact, at 29:46 his is
one of the longest performances I know. Rattle is slightly quicker
overall (28:56) but it’s interesting to note that some, though
by no means all, conductors of the previous generation have taken
less time over this movement. Barbirolli, for example, took 26:53
in his famous EMI Berlin recording, while Kubelik’s live 1975
reading (Audite) took 26:44. The celebrated 1938 Bruno Walter
recording flashes by in 24:47. Have Mahler performances broadened
over the years?
Nott may be spacious but throughout the movement his control and
concentration are impressive. His reading isn’t as passionate
as Rattle can be at times; it’s more patient. There were one or
two occasions when I thought his speeds were just a little bit
too measured but as a whole his reading is impressive. The climaxes
are thrust home – at these points one has the impression that
the orchestra is playing flat out – but the quiet passages often
impress. For example the ghostly passage between 8: 01 and 9:47
is imaginatively presented with lots of good detail – I like the
distanced muted horns, for instance. I think it would be fair
to say that sometimes the violins sound just a little thin in
and the string bass line is certainly underpowered – no
doubt because one is so used, with many other conductors, to hearing
the cellos and basses prominently through the right hand speaker.
But, set against that I must say straightaway that much of the
playing is vivid, the orchestra’s response is totally committed
and there’s a lot of fine solo playing to admire. I have heard
more dramatic, angst
-ridden accounts of this amazingly
rich movement but drama isn’t the whole story by any means and
Nott’s account is very convincing and never less than wholly musical.
He seems to see the whole movement in one long sweep and I admire
his way with it very much.
The two inner movements go very well. There’s a good deal of sharply
etched, piquant playing in II. Nott paces the music very well
and he judges the many tempo modifications expertly. His reading
of III is dynamic and thrusting. He and the engineers bring out
a great deal of the teeming contrapuntal detail in the score.
The trio (from 5:55) is taken at a suitably relaxed pace. This
is nostalgic music but I like the fact that Nott never wallows
in the sentiment; on the contrary, forward momentum is nicely
maintained – and praise too for the solo trumpeter, whose silvery
tone is just right. When the Rondo resumes (10:23) the music is
turbulent and exciting right to the last bar.
The strings come into their own in the finale. The opening paragraphs
are full-toned but the emotion is not overdone – Nott doesn’t
play his cards too soon. The string playing is very good, the
tone just weighty enough - and now we do
hear a satisfyingly
strong bass line. One rather special moment occurs between 4:05
and 4:54 where Nott obtains the most atmospheric playing imaginable
from his strings. At this point the bass line is spectral with
a wafer-thin violin line on top.
Nott unfolds the finale compellingly and the Bamberg strings and
horn section in particular do him proud. Once again, this isn’t
perhaps the most overtly emotional reading I’ve heard but the
patience – perhaps even a degree of reserve? – brings its own
rewards. Nott’s ability to take the long view and to build the
movement incrementally means that when we reach the sustained
ardent passage that lies at the heart of the movement (14:18 –
17:03) the effect is all the greater. The closing pages of this
movement are always a huge test for players and conductor alike.
Here the test is passed very successfully. During the last four
minutes or so, starting with the second violin entry at 21:07,
the music gradually winds down, all passion spent.
This Mahler Ninth is a very fine achievement. A host of great
conductors and leading orchestras have essayed this symphony on
disc over the years and though the seventeen versions on my own
shelves don’t quite go from A to Z they do go from Barbirolli
to Walter. This new version can certainly contend with the best
of them and it’s one to which I’m sure I shall be returning frequently
in the future.