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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D (1908/9) [82:02]
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live in concert and in rehearsal, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 2014. DDD
HALLÉ CDHLD7541 [43:54 + 38:07]

There are so many excellent recordings of Mahler’s last completed symphony that I was spoiled for choice of a comparison.  The obvious would have been Barbirolli, still on balance my own favourite, but that was made with the Berlin Philharmonic rather than his own Hallé. I took the opportunity instead to listen to Karel Ančerl’s 1967 recording, which I hadn’t heard for many a long year, as downloaded in mp3 from (Supraphon Ančerl Gold SU36932).

Many excellent versions there may be, but none so definitive as to eclipse the others – perhaps this really is music which you need to listen to in as many interpretations as possible.  Ančerl, for example, while not playing down the premonitions of death in the symphony, reminds us that it’s also ‘about’ nature, albeit a different, autumnal, view of Nature from the hectic springtime plunge into it in the First Symphony.  Now, like Wordsworth in the Immortality Ode, Mahler’s involvement with Nature is still present in a more subdued form:

And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.

Listen to Mark Elder’s account of the opening movement and, though the echoes of the First Symphony remain, they are much more tinged with a sense of loss.  Elder’s Mahler sounds more like the Wordsworth of the Ode to Duty: ‘Give unto me, made lowly wise, / The spirit of self-sacrifice’.  Both interpretations make perfect sense within their own terms and the chosen tempi make sense too within those terms: Elder takes 27:58 and Ančerl 26:46, a small difference on paper which masks a considerable difference in practice.  Elder is far from extreme: Sir Simon Rattle, on his much praised recording proves that 28:56 can work (Warner/EMI 5012282: Recording of the Month – review).  Karajan’s DDD recording divides the movement into eight tracks, so I’ve had to do some arithmetic to discover that he takes 28:16.  If I prefer Ančerl in one mood, I might well choose Elder in another.  I particularly appreciate the way in which the more modern recording Hallé allows this movement to grow out of silence and die away.

In the second movement, too, Ančerl allows the echoes of the encounter with Nature in the early symphonies to shine through more clearly.  Here again, however, the slightly slower overall tempo – 15:56, exactly in line with Rattle, against 15:10 – means that Elder’s interpretation is somewhat darker-hued, more cynical.  It depends to some extent what you make of Mahler’s direction Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers.  Rattle apparently took the view that this movement represented everything that you hate about the countryside.  I’m not sure what Mahler might have thought of that but Elder sounds more disillusioned than Ančerl, who presents a Mahler who still enjoys much of what he used to love but, like the older Wordsworth, in more measured fashion.

Does the third movement represent all that you hate about the city with its hustle and bustle?  You might well think so from Elder’s performance.

It’s all to play for in the finale.  There is, as you would expect, a difference of opinion about the tempo, with Elder taking 25:11 against Ančerl’s 23:26, though both bring out the world-weariness inherent in the music.  In fact, there’s a case to be made that both are a little too slow and Angst-laden here, with Bruno Walter (EMI Icons box set or download or Naxos Historical 8.110852) and Leonard Bernstein (Sony box set) making a strong case for a lighter view*.  Even Otto Klemperer (EMI box set), formerly aptly coupled on two CDs with Richard Strauss Metamorphosen and Tod und Verklärung, is slightly faster than Elder.  Nevertheless, both Elder and Ančerl achieve a quiet sense of returning home in the final section of this movement, like Bunyan’s Christian arriving at the Promised Land at the end of Pilgrim’s Progress.

* Bernstein seems to have changed his mind about the finale, taking 26:08 with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG Originals 4778620), 29:41 with the Concertgebouw (DG 4794544, download only, or 4778668, 11 CDs: Bargain of the Month – review – or DG 4775197, 5 CDs – review) and a whole 30:09 with the Israel Philharmonic (Helicon Classics HEL029656).

Much of the success of the Elder recording is due to the splendid playing of the Hallé, not least the principal horn, Laurence Rogers, whom I understand Elder made a point of congratulating.  By contrast the Czech Philharmonic brass of Ančerl’s day play with a characteristic Slavonic forthrightness which will not be to all tastes, though it didn’t trouble me greatly.

The Hallé recording, made from a live performance and rehearsal, is very good, with the music dying away into silence at the end of the finale, but Ančerl still sounds well, too, in Supraphon’s refurbishment and with none of that surface crackle which used to afflict Supraphon LPs.  Good value as they were at 17/6 – actually rather more than that when the Mahler was issued in the UK – it was sometimes impossible to find a copy that didn’t sound as if there were fish frying in the next room.

Ančerl’s lighter touch means that his recording fits on one CD.  Elder takes two but his recording is sold for the price of one: £12 post free world-wide from MusicWeb-International.  I wouldn’t make either of them my sole recording – if you can afford only one it should be Barbirolli (Warner/EMI Masters 672922 – review of earlier GROC reissue: Bargain of the Month) – but it’s very apparent from the Hallé recording why the audience in Manchester in 2014 were apparently stunned into silence at the end, followed by a huge ovation which many listeners will be pleased to hear is not included on the recording.

No one recording of this powerful work can convey the whole picture but Elder’s is a strong contender.

Brian Wilson

Another review ...

After listening to and greatly admiring the pared-back chamber music version of this work by Klaus Simon (see review) I was delighted to have the opportunity to return to its full-fat manifestation. I am even more delighted to be able to report that this Hallé performance and recording is ‘the real deal’ in every respect.

This is the very finest kind of ‘composer knows best’ performance. Sir Mark Elder doesn’t miss anything in terms of detail, weighing his instruments with just the right amount of dynamic impact, bringing out inner voices without artificially spotlighting anything in particular, accenting and articulating the orchestra as a single, organic instrument. Here he is helped by a recording which is stunning in its depth and accuracy of balance. We are told that this is a live performance and ‘in rehearsal’, a healthy admission that nasty bumps and coughs have been covered through invisible editing. There is absolutely no audience noise, no horrible applause at the end and all but the most minor of blemishes in perhaps one or two spots, few of which you are likely to notice even if I point out the bar numbers.

Elder is uncontroversial in terms of tempi, which again means taking what has been printed in the score and using that as gospel rather than furnishing the music with too much added interpretation. Mahler didn’t use metronome markings, so no-one can be definitive in this regard, though we can have a look back at conductors who actually worked with Mahler and compare timings. Bruno Walter is more compact in the outer movements in his 1938 recording, the final Adagio coming in at an urgent 18:30 to Elder’s 25:10. I don’t sense too much lingering around in this Hallé performance however. Taking another big favourite, the Berlin Philharmonic with Sir John Barbirolli on EMI and the timings are closer, Elder adding a relatively scant minute to the first and two to the last movements — not a huge difference over a span surpassing 25 minutes each.

I don’t plan on analysing everything, but the second movement has plenty to offer in terms of indicators for the quality of the rest. A tad slower than Barbirolli in the second movement, Elder keeps bounce and energy in the strings, separating the notes as asked for without over-picky shortening, and digging in with suitably rustic rawness. Second violins are placed on the right of the stage and the antiphony between them and the 1sts on the left is nicely clear in the recording. There is a bum note in the last crotchet of the horns in bar 109 but there you go, it’s a live performance. As the music progresses you can hear where Elder’s tempo allows every nuance of the piece to come through without haste. Textures are kept light through the dynamic shaping of sustained notes, Mahler’s little restraints and surges of tempo are observed with sensitivity, and the way the musical material is thrown around between the orchestral sections creates a playful garden of delights. Yes, Mahler plants sturdy tree-trunks you have to avoid running into, but this is a place in which your imagination can run riot, between dance-like moments to the witty or vampish gestures of the characters who occupy whichever space you have invented for yourself.

The final Adagio is crucial to the success of any performance of this symphony, and while Elder doesn’t overtly wring every ounce of emotion from these notes as did Leonard Bernstein in his 1985 recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon, nor does he stretch the movement into almost 30 minutes. I happen to like Bernstein’s Ninth though admit this kind of thing is very personal, and I’ll bring it out if I really want to shed a tear or two. Sir Mark Elder is cooler, though his orchestral effects are every bit as magical as the composer hopefully envisioned.

It’a shame this recording is spread over two discs, though this is the kind of vast musical canvas which can stand having a little break halfway. The booklet notes for this release are informative and unpretentious. You can also find a further resource on the MWI site here. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is one of those works which can easily stand having more than one version in your collection and there are plenty of good ones around. It isn’t as opulent as Sir Simon Rattle on EMI for instance (see review), which is also very good indeed though the detail in this recording has a bit more the feeling of one obtained in the studio rather than in the concert hall, with every instrumental section captured at close quarters and then tamed in the mixing desk. If you only want one recording then this Hallé performance can easily be amongst your top choices; it’s that good.

Dominy Clements



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