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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 (1909/10) [80.45]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec: Live 20/21 October 2016, Philharmonie, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900151 [80:45]

The BR Klassik label released a live recording of Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks performing Mahler Symphony No. 9 as recently as 2012, when Bernard Haitink was the conductor in an outstanding account (review). Now on this live 2016 recording of Mahler 9 with the same orchestra, its chief conductor Mariss Jansons takes the baton for an outstanding account.

Undoubtedly impacting greatly on the conception of the score, Mahler’s personal circumstances of the period prior to the composition of the Ninth make striking reading. In 1907 Mahler’s oldest daughter Putzi died from diphtheria; after a campaign against him he resigned from his post as director of the Vienna Court Opera and was diagnosed with a heart condition. These traumatic events resulted in a creative impasse for a time. Subsequently Mahler began preparing sketches for the Ninth in the summer of 1909 whilst holidaying in the South Tyrol at Toblach. The spectre of Beethoven and other composers dying after composing their ninth symphony lay heavy on Mahler. He employed a ruse, an attempt to deceive fate, that this D major Symphony was not actually the ninth to be written by stating that the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) from 1907/08 was actually his ninth. Mahler completed his score in New York in the spring of 1910, only to die a few months later in May 1911. The posthumous première was given 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 and is sometimes regarded as the composer’s own personal Requiem.

With masterly control Jansons takes the remarkable opening movement Andante comodo with what feels like just the right degree of forward momentum and dramatic tension. Jansons’ interpretation starkly contrasts the writing of an idyllic sense of bucolic contentment to world weary acquiescence with occasional glimpses of apocalyptic terror. In the bittersweet second movement Scherzo the contrasting moods are astutely emphasised. On the surface things are unified by the unremitting dance rhythms of two different pairs of waltzes and Ländler. I was struck by how the music gets increasingly frantic and contorted before fading way into the distance. The adeptness of Jansons’ confident direction is commendable, as is the orchestra’s responsive playing. The shifting moods of the Rondo-Burleske are suitably underlined and frequently driven to extremes by Jansons. Mahler’s writing seems tongue in cheek, from the trivial often popular melodies to the chilling and grotesque. Marked by Jansons’ robust forward momentum only a number of brief dream-like episodes provide a modicum of relief from the near mayhem of sound. The Finale: Adagio contains no more passages of disdain and mockery. This is serene, incandescent music reflecting Mahler’s intense personal introspection, interpreted with a high level of inspiration and sense of total involvement. Jansons’ Bavarian strings provide a blanket of sublime sound of a searing intensity. Emotionally everything seems almost too hard to bear. As with the finest performances the final pages feel like a depiction of a stage in life between actual death and the soul ascending into heaven.

Jansons’ account with the Philharmonie, Munich is fairly closely recorded, with good clarity, presence and satisfying balance. On this live recording there is very little extraneous audience noise and no applause has been left in. Nicely presented, the release has a helpful essay in the booklet titled The Song of Farewell by Jörg Handstein.

Mahler 9 is certainly a score that has inspired a number of excellent recordings. Of the older recordings, the one I have found the most consistently satisfying is Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker on EMI Classics. Barbirolli made the 1964 recording in the marvellous acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin. This was a time when the Berliner Philharmoniker had no real tradition of performing Mahler and Barbirolli was in effect re-introducing Mahler to the orchestra. In 1979 Leonard Bernstein conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for his first and only time. As Mahler was a composer close to Bernstein’s heart he selected Mahler 9 to play at the Philharmonie as part of the Berlin Festival and was granted more than the usual number of rehearsals. Bernstein gave a compelling, intensely felt live performance and thankfully the Berlin RIAS tape of the concert has been released on Deutsche Grammophon. Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker was produced at live concerts in 1999 from the Philharmonie, Berlin. On Deutsche Grammophon Abbado’s interpretation is insightful with much fine detail and beautifully played too, without that bottom heavy sound that Karajan previously established with the orchestra. Attractively shaped and inherently spontaneous in feel is the strikingly played account by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Rattle recorded the score live in 2007 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on EMI Classics. A recording that seems to get better and better with each hearing is from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Rafael Kubelik, then the orchestra’s chief conductor, on Audite. Recorded live on tour in 1975 at Tokyo, Japan, Kubelik exercises splendid control over the overall shape of the score and one senses a real empathy with the composer. Mentioned earlier Bernard Haitink’s 2012 account with Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks was recorded live at the Herkulessaal, Munich. This is a compelling and deeply perceptive account from Haitink that can rank alongside the finest recordings of the work (on BR Klassik).

A great Mahlerian in my view, Mariss Jansons here directs a memorable live account of Mahler 9, drawing stunning playing of considerable intensity from his Bavarian orchestra. Immaculately prepared, as usual, I admire Jansons’ masterly control of tempo, dynamic and scale. Beautifully recorded too at the Philharmonie, Munich this BR Klassik release will feature prominently in my Mahler collection.

Michael Cookson



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