Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 9 in D
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
rec. live, 6-7 December 2009, Köln Philharmonie

And still they come! There seems no end to the recording industry’s appetite for the symphonies of Mahler, especially in 2010 and 2011 as the anniversaries of his birth and death have been marked. This latest Mahler release also serves to mark the start of Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s tenure as principal conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, in succession to Semyon Bychkov, from the start of the 2010/11 season. In fact, the performances from which this recording stems were given before Saraste took up his post but he is no stranger to the orchestra, with whom he’s worked as a guest conductor for several years.

I have to confess that I’m in two minds about this recording. Some aspects of it are very good whilst in other ways Saraste doesn’t quite seem to hit the mark. And that’s the same with the recording itself. Listeners will find there’s a good deal of clarity to the orchestra texture – for which the conductor must take credit as well as the engineers – yet I wonder if this has been achieved at the price of acoustic space round the orchestra. I didn’t quite get the feel of a credible concert hall acoustic and the orchestra seemed a bit closely recorded. However, others may get different results depending on their audio equipment and the clarity of texture is certainly to be applauded.

As to Saraste’s vision of the symphony, I find quite a lot to admire but often I felt I wanted more from him. The great first movement has its moments and he seems to me to catch the bitter-sweet element in the music pretty well. However, he doesn’t always thrust home the emotional impact. A case in point is the passage between 6:22 and 8:40 where I simply don’t hear the foreboding that is surely in the music at that point. To be fair, further on (for example between 10:13 and 11:26) the performance generates good tension but too often I felt the interpretation was a little too relaxed.

In the second movement Saraste achieves a suitably rustic gait in the ländler. I think he has divided his violins left and right – one certainly gets good separation of the string lines here and at times in the finale. When the pace picks up ( for instance between 2:41 and 4:54) there’s a nice spring to the music, which I like, and keen rhythmic articulation is often achieved in this movement, not least by the pithy woodwind section. Overall I think Saraste catches the sardonic humour of this movement pretty well.

He brings lots of drive and energy to the Rondo-Burleske but perhaps the pace is just a notch too fast? The trumpet-led passages of slower music are done well enough though I have to say that other conductors have invested the music with more feeling in my experience. When the Rondo returns for the last time the tempo is pretty frenetic, though the orchestra copes well.

The opening paragraphs of the finale are distinguished by some fine string playing and I like the strength in the string bass line. The passage from 4:14 to about 6:00, which begins with sepulchral contrabassoon and double basses, is brought off very well; there’s a really disembodied tone to the playing, which is absolutely apposite. Saraste builds the movement intelligently. The climatic passages are suitably ardent, especially from 14:22 to 15:19 and the subsequent pages sound dignified. The ending, from 21:11 onwards is well managed; the string tone becomes increasingly withdrawn.

So, I take a lot of positives out of this performance but in the last analysis I’m not sure it stands up to the fierce competition that already exists in the catalogue. There are several readings of Mahler’s Ninth that plumb greater depths than this newcomer. Among ‘live’ accounts alone one thinks of the Berlin Philharmonic performances directed by Bernstein, Karajan and Rattle. There are now so many recordings of this symphony available that a new version has to be very special to command the loyalties of collectors. In all honesty I don’t think this recording is in the very special category. I don’t think anyone buying it will be seriously disappointed but other versions offer more. It should be said that though the recording stems from a pair of live concerts one is not conscious of obtrusive audience noise.

John Quinn

A decent performance of Mahler’s Ninth but several rival versions offer more.