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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D major [84:05]
Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra / Benjamin Zander
rec. live 11 March 2018, Symphony Hall, Boston
BRATTLE MEDIA BM 2CD-QZ8LQ18-06 [28:56+57:15]

The conductor Benjamin Zander celebrates his 80th birthday this year; in fact, his birthday fell on 9 March and, by coincidence, that was just a few days before I sat down to write this review. Zander founded the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in 1979 and more recently, in 2012, he formed the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. This group of young musicians, drawn from all over the USA, covers an age range from 21 down to as young as 12 and the aim of the orchestra is not just to train excellent young musicians but also to help them grow in all sorts of other ways: their motto is “Shaping Future Leaders through Music”. Zander and the BPYO have already released a live recording of Mahler’s Sixth symphony which I hope to review soon. That was a performance given in April 2017; a year later they turned their attention to the composer’s profound and stretching Ninth Symphony.

The first thing I want to say loud and clear is that anyone listening to these discs will need to make no allowance whatsoever for the fact that the BPYO has the word ‘youth’ in its title. These young musicians can really play! In saying that, I’m not just talking about technical accomplishment – though they have that in spades – but also about musical maturity. Indeed, in delivering this performance the players display a maturity well beyond their years.

It’s quite clear that Benjamin Zander has not merely tutored the orchestra in how to play the symphony but that he has encouraged them to explore the work individually and collectively and to discover what is below the surface of the music. The performance radiates assurance and also understanding. Tellingly, in his very thoughtful booklet essay, Zander comments that orchestral musicians are accustomed to play with each other and to blend. However, in Mahler’s Ninth, he argues, the nature of the writing is such that the players must also express themselves as individuals. That’s a huge challenge for young players who are still learning their craft as orchestral musicians yet the successful results are plain for us to hear in this performance.

Right from the start of the huge first movement the foreboding and aching melancholy in the music are there for all to hear. Incidentally, Zander’s left-right split of his violins pays dividends here and throughout the work. The members of the BPYO clearly feel the music deeply and it’s often projected strongly – in the latter regard, the first climax at 2:51 gives a good foretaste of what’s in store. As the performance unfolds no one could complain of a lack of power in the playing, where it’s warranted. However, the power is unforced and, furthermore, there’s no cause for disappointment in the delivery of the many passages that call for refinement. The score often teems with intricate detail and there’s no blurring of that detail: this is a precise performance. Just once, at 14:56, where the low brass plays a version of the syncopated melodic fragment that’s so important in this work, I thought that perhaps the tuba was somewhat overstated. However, it’s but a momentary “ blip” – and, indeed, Zander may have intended it to sound this way. You may wonder why I highlight this small detail. It’s not because I’m being pernickety; rather, it’s because there is so very little in this performance that might cause one to raise so much as a critical eyebrow. Immediately following that moment comes an extended, tense episode of very hushed music. Here the concentration of the players is palpable. There’s nowhere to hide in this passage – and these musicians have no need of a hiding place. The long epilogue (from 25:14) is just as exposed and it’s just as successfully negotiated. Indeed, not only is the epilogue flawlessly executed but also the players demonstrate great empathy with the music. There’s a great deal of fine solo work to admire hereabouts. I regard the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth as one of the greatest achievements in symphonic literature: Zander and his players do it full justice.

In his essay, Benjamin Zander calls the second movement a “grim parody” of a Lšndler and he hits the nail on the head in declaring that Mahler’s music “shows that the true Lšndler is stiffened and chained, deprived of its characteristic lilt.” I love the thought of the traditional dance form being “stiffened and chained” in this context: that’s such an apposite thought. Zander adopts a sturdy pace and style. The BPYO’s playing is sharply pointed and when the second group is reached (2;38) the performance is fiercely projected. That’s as it should be because in this movement we’re viewing waltz rhythms refracted through a dark, even nightmarish lens. The playing has plenty of bite throughout and I especially approve of the tangy woodwind contributions.

The Rondo-Burleske is a real test for any orchestra with its teeming and demanding counterpoint. The test is triumphantly passed here and I strongly approve of the way that dynamics and accents are scrupulously observed to give the music its demonic life. At 6:28 a silvery trumpet leads us into the tender section in a slower tempo which in some ways prefigures the finale. This is all eloquently played. At 10:37, after several false starts, the Rondo erupts again. Zander’s pace here is at first a fraction steadier than in some performances I’ve heard but this doesn’t in any way diminish the impact of the music which spits and snarls with the proper vehemence. The coda (from 12:20) is driven along in a frenzy: no quarter is asked or given.

So, we move to the wonderful finale in the home key of D flat, a rich and remote key. In the opening paragraphs the strings are eloquent and generous of tone. I greatly admired in this movement the richness and depth of tone exhibited by the string choir. However, just as worthy of note – perhaps more so – is the amazing control which the players in all sections of the orchestra display in the hushed, intense passages. The deeply felt, extended climax (15:43 – 17:40) is marvellously projected; the strings and horns really rise to the occasion hereabouts. I did wonder if, in this passage, Zander might have moved the music forward just a fraction, thereby unleashing even more potently the passionate intensity in Mahler’s music but even so the performance is very rewarding and as the temperature cools the sense of longing in the music comes across fully. From 21:03 the long, rarefied conclusion is marvellously achieved. The BPYO strings offer superbly controlled playing as the music exists on the merest threads of sound. Eventually, at 25:23 the music fades beyond our consciousness and there follows – thankfully – a sustained and profound silence before applause begins at 26:34. The ovation, which is fairly soon faded out, is fully justified but I’d advise listeners to stop the recording before the audience shows its appreciation. A top-quality performance of Mahler’s Ninth should leave the listener craving silence: this is such a performance. I should say that elsewhere there’s very little evidence of the presence of an audience.

This account of Mahler’s Ninth is a formidable achievement and all the more so when one considers that it is given by young musicians and that it is a live performance (albeit edited from the concert and the dress rehearsal.) It’s not just the technical accomplishment that has impressed me, however; it’s also the orchestra’s engagement with the music and their commitment. The performance is conducted superbly by Benjamin Zander and if his excellent booklet notes don’t convince you that he has thought deeply about the symphony then listening to his interpretation of it will do so. I can only say that each time I’ve listened to this performance I’ve been gripped by it from start to finish.

The recording is excellent. The microphones have been so positioned that an abundance of detail emerges but the recording is not oppressively close and one gets also the ‘big picture’ of the performance. There’s plenty of depth in the sound with a fine, but not overdone bass. All sections of the orchestra are reported truthfully. The recording has plenty of impact, catches the quiet passages with great fidelity and gives very good left-right and front-to-back perspectives, One slight caveat, though; be careful that you don’t set the volume level too high. I made that mistake the first time I listened and the excessive volume gave an unfair impression of a “massive” performance. Once I’d found a more accurate playback level all was well.

This is a recording of the Ninth that can sit proudly in any Mahler collection.

John Quinn

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