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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D Major (1909/10) [75.55]
Budapest Festival Orchestra/IvŠn Fischer
rec. 2013, Palace of Arts, Budapest, Hungary

Drawn from the finest young players in Hungary the Budapest Festival Orchestra is conducted here by IvŠn Fischer its co-founder and music director. Fischer and his Budapest players have already released Mahler 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 on Channel Classics with 3 and 7 programmed for the 2015/16 concert series.

It is not surprising that the spectre of Beethoven and of other composers dying after composing their Ninth Symphony lay heavily on Mahler who had been diagnosed with a heart condition. He attempted to cheat fate by stating that this D major Symphony was not the ninth to be written as Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) from 1907/08 was actually his ninth.

In the summer of 1909 Mahler began preparing sketches for his Symphony No. 9 at the Villa Alt-Schluderbach in Toblac, South Tyrol. The score was completed in New York in the spring of 1910 and Mahler died a few months later in May 1911. The work was premiŤred posthumously under Bruno Walter and the Wiener Philharmoniker in June 1912.

It is an intriguing and greatly rewarding score, a work of farewell steeped in introspection; maybe the composerís personal requiem. IvŠn Fischer sees the symphony as ďa most complex, extremely forward looking, visionary symphonyĒ.

In November/December 2013 Fischer took the Budapest Festival Orchestra into the Palace of Arts, Budapest to record Mahler 9 under studio conditions for Channel Classics. With unerring confidence Fischer quickly generates a powerful intensity in the opening movement. This contrasts with writing of idyllic bucolic contentment. The music feels highly picturesque - to me evoking a mysterious forested landscape with a magnificent waterfall. In the bitter-sweet second movement Scherzo once again extremes prevail. On the surface things are unified by the near unremitting dance rhythms of two different pairs of waltzes and lšndler. Then a sardonic edge in the music becomes increasingly frantic and contorted before fading into the distance. The varying sound-world of the Rondo-Burleske is a swirling mix of urgency, anxiety, seriousness, occasional triviality and a glimpse of normality among all the mayhem. Marked Adagio, the Finale eschews disdain and mockery instead speaking through heavenly music of considerable generosity. As the playing gathers in burning intensity there is a undercurrent of deep reflection. Control of pace and tension is masterly and the searing Budapest strings provide an intense blanket of sublime sound. In Fischerís expert hands the final page with muted strings could easily be a depiction of the stage in life between actual death and ascension into heaven.

I have whittled down to four the competing accounts of Mahler 9 that I find especially satisfying. The most consistently rewarding and my first choice is conducted by Sir John Barbirolli and the Berliner Philharmoniker recorded in 1964 under studio conditions in the marvellous acoustic of the Jesus Christ Church, Dahlem, Berlin on EMI Classics. This has all the atmosphere and spontaneity of a live recording. Barbirolli was the first British conductor to make a recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker since Sir Thomas Beecham back in 1937. This was a time when the Berliner Philharmoniker rarely performed Mahler symphonies and Barbirolli was in effect helping the orchestra to rediscover the composer. In 1979 Leonard Bernstein conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for his first and only time. As Mahler was a composer close to Bernsteinís heart he selected Mahler 9. As a change from the more usual two rehearsals Bernstein was actually given four sessions. His live performance pulsates with intensity, although the playing isnít always perfect. It was recorded at the Philharmonie, Berlin for Deutsche Grammophon. An account that continues to grow on me is from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Rafael Kubelik then the orchestraís chief conductor. Recorded live on tour in 1975 in Tokyo, Japan. It is on Audite. Kubelik exercises splendid control over the overall shape of the score and one senses a real empathy with the composer - a fellow Bohemian. A more recent recording worthy of admiration is the version from Bernard Haitink conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Haitink provides a compelling and deeply perceptive live account recorded in 2011 in the impressive acoustic of the Herkulessaal, Munich. This adds to the merit of this BR Klassik release.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra was recorded at the Palace of Arts, Budapest. The sound team for Channel Classics has provided clear textures, realistic presence and impressive balance. A dedicated Mahlerian, Fischer directs a well-shaped yet penetrating reading. It joins the echelons of the finest recordings.

Michael Cookson

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