Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D Major (1909/10) [79:53]
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 15-16 December 2011, Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900113 [79:53]
The spectre of Beethoven and other composers dying after composing their ninth symphony lay heavy on Mahler who had been diagnosed with a heart condition. He used a ruse in an attempt to deceive fate. This was on the basis that this D major Symphony was not actually the ninth to be written. To get to this point he stated that the symphonic song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde from 1907/08 was actually his ninth. It was in the summer of 1909 when Mahler began preparing sketches for his Symphony No. 9 in the South Tyrol at the Villa Alt Schluderbach in Toblach. The score was completed in New York in the spring of 1910 and premièred posthumously under Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in June 1912. Mahler 9 is an intriguing and greatly rewarding score, a work of farewell steeped in introspection; maybe the composer’s personal requiem.

It was in December 2011 that the formidable combination of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink performed Mahler 9 in two concerts. With unerring assurance Haitink takes the opening movement Andante comodo at sensible tempi with adroit forward momentum. This boldly contrasts an idyllic sense of bucolic contentment with world-weary acquiescence and occasional terrifying glimpses of funereal darkness.
In the bitter sweet Scherzo contrasting styles prevail. On the surface things are unified by the unremitting dance rhythms of two different pairs of waltzes and ländler. The music becomes increasingly frantic and contorted before fading into the distance. Haitink’s direction is remarkable and the orchestra’s playing is impressive.
The varying moods of the Rondo-Burleske are heavily intensified and pushed to the limit. Mahler’s writing seems tongue-in-cheek from the trivial, often popular, melodies to the chilling and grotesque material. Haitink’s forward momentum is near relentless and only a central dream-like and idyllic episode (9:19-10:10) provides a brief relief from the mayhem.
Marked Adagio in D flat major the Finale contains no more disdain and mockery. This is serene, incandescent music steeped in reflection and interpreted with a high level of inspiration. Haitink’s searing Bavarian strings conjure an intense blanket of sublime sound. Emotionally everything seems almost too hard to bear. The final page with muted strings could easily be a depiction of transition between death and ascension.
I have numerous accounts of Mahler 9 and the recording that I find the most consistently satisfying is that conducted by John Barbirolli and the Berlin Philharmonic. This was recorded in 1964 in the marvellous acoustic of the Jesus Christ Church, Dahlem, Berlin (EMI Classics 5 67925 2). Barbirolli was the first British conductor to make a recording with the BPO since Sir Thomas Beecham in 1937. This was a time when the orchestra really had no tradition of performing Mahler. Barbirolli was in effect re-introducing them to Mahler.
There are several other admirable Mahler 9s of which four happen to be performed live by BPO. In 1979 Leonard Bernstein conducted them for his first and only time. As Mahler was a composer close to Bernstein’s heart he selected the Ninth. As a change from the more usual two or three rehearsals he was actually given four. Thankfully this intensely felt event was recorded on Deutsche Grammophon 477 862 0.
Karajan, who only became interested in Mahler relatively late in his career, recorded Mahler 9 with the BPO at the Philharmonie as part of the 1982 Berlin Festival celebrating the orchestra’s centenary. This live recording shows Karajan, then in his mid-sixties, revealing real depths in Mahler’s writing. He easily draws the listener in on Deutsche Grammophon 474 537 2.
Karajan’s successor as principal was Claudio Abbado. His recording with the BPO was made at live concerts from the Berlin Philharmonie in 1999. Abbado is insightful with plenty of fine detail, beautifully played and without that bottom-heavy sound that Karajan had established. The Abbado recording is on Deutsche Grammophon 471 624 2.
Attractively fashioned and spontaneous in feel is the strikingly played Rattle recording. Rattle recorded the score live in 2007 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on EMI Classics 501228-2.
Otto Klemperer then in his mid-sixties recorded the Ninth with the New Philharmonia in 1961 at the Kingsway Hall, London. He is strong on biting tension in his compelling interpretation. The Berliners responded with palpable assurance (EMI Classics 5 67036 2 - c/w Wagner Siegfried Idyll, R. Strauss Metamorphosen).
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra recording under Rafael Kubelik - then the orchestra’s chief conductor - has really grown on me. Recorded live on tour in 1975 in Tokyo there’s splendid control over the overall structure and one senses a real empathy with the composer. It’s on Audite 95.471.
Haitink and the Bavarians are compelling and deeply perceptive. Indeed this reading ranks alongside the finest. The sound is clear and well balanced and this adds to the considerable merits of this splendid release.
Michael Cookson
A compelling and deeply perceptive live account of Mahler 9 that ranks alongside the finest.