Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 (1908-09) [74:09]
Staatskapelle Berlin (Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden)/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, 5 April 2009, Berlin Philharmonie
Picture Format NTSC 16:9; Sound Formats PCM 2.0; DD 5.1
UNITEL/CMAJOR 703708 [1 DVD – Symphony: 74:09; Bonus: 22:34]

Several things about this recording strike you immediately: tempos are brisk - which is generally a good thing in this symphony - the orchestral playing is often muscular and brusque, and the sound is vivid and immediate. Regarding Barenboim’s tempo selections here, his overall timing of 74:09 makes this one of the faster Mahler Ninths. Giulini (DG), with the Chicago Symphony from 1976, was at the other extreme, coming in at just under 88:00, while Bruno Walter (Dutton Laboratories) and the Vienna Philharmonic, from 1938, clocked in at a fleet 69:42! Walter, who premiered the work in 1912, would record it again, in 1961 (the first stereo version), for Columbia (now on Sony), and offer more mainstream tempos. A symphony that can vary in length nearly twenty minutes from one convincing performance to another, must offer many interpretive vantage points to conductor and orchestra. Indeed.

Some conductors wallow in the work’s tragedy and gloom, while others are less sentimental and plumb the music more vigorously for its dark anguish, grotesqueries, sense of ineluctable tragedy, and its off-kilter, ominous rhythms - the opening rhythmic motto is said to be the sick composer’s arrhythmic heartbeat. Barenboim is in the latter camp, pointing up all sorts of detail throughout the symphony and punctuating phrases with instrumental playing that often seems to jump right out at you. Right after the opening motto is played in the first movement, the harp and muted horn come in with an emphatic ghostliness that rouses the ear. In later passages the bass clarinet often seems to growl, whether in the underpinning or in the foreground. The playing is typically not as gentle here as it is in many other Mahler Ninths, though the first movement still effectively conveys that sense of farewell and of fate lurking around the corner. Most importantly, the music does not drag or turn static, as can happen in the hands of lesser conductors, especially in the closing pages.

The two middle movements are splendidly realized, again with a sense of vigor, but now with more color and bite. The playing is very spirited and there are many moments of joy here, but joy mixed with acid and regret. The finale is gripping in its life-and-death struggle, the strings searing in their intensity, but turning gentle and submissive in the closing pages. This is one of the loveliest and saddest Mahler Ninth Adagios you’re likely to encounter. The Staatskapelle Berlin perform magnificently here and throughout the whole symphony. Barenboim, incidentally, has been their music director since 1992 and Conductor-for-Life since 2000.

Overall, this is a splendid performance of this complex symphony. The camera-work throughout this video is excellent too, giving you plenty of detailed shots of solo instrumentalists and instrumental sections, always presented with a knowing sense of what’s happening in the score. There is also a bonus track on which Barenboim and Pierre Boulez discuss Mahler. This release is part of a Mahler project by C Major, in which the two conductors will record all the symphonies in a shared cycle, with Barenboim apparently doing the instrumental-only symphonies.

On CD other excellent versions of the Mahler Ninth include the Libor Pesek, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on Virgin Classics; the Jonathan Nott, with the Bamberger Symphoniker on Tudor; and the aforementioned Giulini (despite his slow tempos) and 1961 Walter recordings. The only other DVDs I’m aware of are the 2005 Abbado (DG), a small part of which I’ve seen, and the 1971 Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic, which is good but with less effective sound and video - the camera is often focused only on Bernstein. For DVD this Barenboim performance is probably a safe bet considering that Abbado’s orchestra is the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, a very fine ensemble to be sure, but not quite at the top-tier level. The Barenboim competes well with even the best versions on CD and is thus a most worthwhile acquisition, probably an essential one for Mahler mavens.

Robert Cummings

A splendid performance of this complex symphony.