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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D major [74:09]
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, 5 April 2009, Philharmonie, Berlin
Bonus feature: The Mahler Project: Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez working on the symphonies of Gustav Mahler [22:34]
Picture format: 16:9 NTSC. Sound: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1. Region Code: All (worldwide)
English subtitles (bonus feature)
Previously released as 703708
C MAJOR DVD 750408 [101:00]

To the best of my recollection I’ve not experienced Daniel Barenboim in Mahler before so I was more than a little curious to see how this great and perceptive musician would approach the music. We learn from the notes, which I didn’t read until after I’d watched the performance for the first time that Barenboim only came to Mahler when he was in his thirties; up to that point he’d been strongly resistant to Mahler. Apparently, what won him over was the subtleties and he’s particularly keen to bring out as much detail in performance as he possibly can. That intrigued me on two levels. Firstly because the present performance of the Ninth is one of extreme clarity. Second, this performance was part of a jointly-conducted Mahler cycle in which Barenboim’s partner was Pierre Boulez, a conductor famed for his insistence on clarity.

Barenboim’s pacing of the great first movement struck me as unusually fleet and fluent. I don’t mean that he rushes the music but he certainly makes it flow. And the sense of fluency is accentuated by the lightness of texture that he achieves for much of the time. Yes, the big climaxes are powerful but the prime impression I received was of delicacy and finesse, an impression heightened by the very fine playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin. The middle section of the movement has plenty of urgency but elsewhere there’s a singing quality to the music-making that’s most refreshing. You won’t find Barenboim probing for the last bit of tragedy in the music and he’s not as expansive overall as conductors such as Rattle (review), still less Tennstedt (review). In fact in some ways the performance of which I was most reminded, at least in terms of pacing, was Bruno Walter’s legendary 1938 recording (review), though, unsurprisingly, Barenboim doesn’t convey the sheer nervous tension of Walter’s pre-Anschluss reading.

It was interesting to see Barenboim hush the audience so that he could make a start on the second movement with not too great a gap after the first movement. The opening Lšndler material is piquant, which I like very much. When Mahler increases the tempo Barenboim responds with a very swift, spirited tempo; it’s a very genuine one-in-a-bar. Some conductors invest this second movement, quite deliberately, with a touch of rustic heaviness; that’s not Barenboim’s way. When the Lšndler returns I enjoyed the tangy sound of the woodwinds. No prisoners are taken in the Rondo-Burleske, which is rightly taken at quite a lick. The central, slower section is affectionate but not indulgent.

Barenboim is very expressive in the Adagio but never once does he overplay his hand; this is a clear-eyed reading. As in the first movement I was struck by the extent to which the music flows yet there’s ample expression there. That said, I think that conductors like Rattle and also Abbado (his live 1999 DG version with the Berliner Philharmoniker) probe even more deeply beneath the skin of the music. The main climax of the movement is properly ardent. Then, as the music winds down from that expressive peak Barenboim obtains an impressively refined response from his orchestra. The last few pages are very beautiful and highly concentrated.

Barenboim’s is not the only way to play this great symphony. Yet Mahler’s Ninth is a many-faceted score and I think that this is a very valid approach to it even if I would generally prefer readings with a higher emotional temperature. This, however, is a thoughtful, refined and subtle reading and it’s one to which I’m sure I’ll return.

We auditioned the Blu-Ray version of this release recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. We were only able to view part of the first movement but we formed the view that the video pictures are very crisp and clear. We also came to the view that the sound is very good though we had the impression that the harps were rather prominent in some of the quieter passages. Having now experienced the full performance in DVD format I’d endorse those initial reactions.

The bonus feature is a film made in conjunction with a cycle of the Mahler symphonies that Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez gave with the Staatskapelle Berlin. The cycle, in which they shared the conducting, was given in Berlin, New York and Vienna. I’m not entirely sure when those performances took place but the booklet says it was “in the run-up” to the Mahler centenary celebrations in 2010-11 and that the present performance of the Ninth was part of the Project; all that suggests the cycle was given in 2009. I think Boulez’s account of the Second Symphony, which has been released on Blu-Ray (Euroarts 2054424) may be part of the cycle too. However, to the best of my knowledge no other performances from the Barenboim/Boulez cycle have been commercially released.

In the film we see both of these distinguished conductors talking about conducting Mahler and there’s quite a bit or rehearsal footage of both of them rehearsing with the Staatskapelle Berlin. It’s an interesting film. The language used throughout the film is German; subtitles are available but only in English.

John Quinn

Previous review (earlier release): Robert Cummings

A note on the Blu-ray version
Since submitting the above review I’ve had the opportunity to experience the performance in the Blu-ray format (C Major 750504)
I’d obtained very good results through the DVD medium but the Blu-ray adds an extra degree of sharpness to the visual images and similarly gives an enhanced sound quality. I also took the opportunity to play the Blu-ray as an audio disc, using the player that I have connected to my hi-fi system. On that occasion the true quality of the audio recording came through and I could appreciate even more, for example, the strength of the attack in the Rondo-Burleske and the richness of the string sound in the Adagio. The bass sound is full and firm, providing an excellent and well-balanced foundation to the orchestra.
The opportunity to experience again Barenboim’s performance heightened even more my appreciation of it. He is such a musical conductor. He isn’t at all flamboyant in his style and he’s not as overtly emotional in his gestures as some conductors – for much of the time he just concentrates on giving the beat in an expressive and clear fashion – but, my goodness, he gets results. This is surely a product of the intensive preparatory work done in rehearsal – into which we get an insight in the ‘Mahler Project’ bonus feature. It also reflects the evident strong rapport that he has with this orchestra. Above all I admire the way he makes the Adagio really sing. This is a considerable account of Mahler’s Ninth and though I can’t imagine anyone being dissatisfied with the audio or video on the DVD, the Blu-ray is an even better option.

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