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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1909) [83:28]
Bamberger Symphoniker/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. live. June 2018, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle Bamberg
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included
ACCENTUS ACC30477 [45:54 + 37:37]

As John Quinn pointed out in his review of this release, the Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt is not someone you’d readily associate with Mahler, although he did set down a somewhat underwhelming ‘Resurrection’ with the San Francisco SO in 1992 (Decca). No, I think of him as a very able interpreter of the symphonies of Carl Nielsen (EMI-Warner, Decca) and Jean Sibelius (Decca), not to mention the works of his compatriot, Wilhelm Stenhammar (BIS, Caprice). His tenure as music director of the SFSO from 1985 to 1995 was very productive, as Decca’s 30-disc box, Herbert Blomstedt: The San Francisco Years, so amply demonstrates. Apart from the Nielsen and Sibelius sets, I’m particularly fond of their accounts of Paul Hindemith’s Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’ (1987) and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (1990).

Now in his nineties, not only has Blomstedt decided to revisit Mahler, he’s also chosen the Ninth, arguably the composer’s greatest work. I did wonder whether that qualifies as unwise or audacious; then again, I’d find out soon enough. As for the Bamberg Symphoniker, they’re no strangers to this repertoire, having quite recently completed a Mahler cycle with Jonathan Nott, individual instalments of which have been reviewed on these pages (Tudor). And while it’s not a top-notch traversal, I must single out their Second and Eighth for special praise. John Quinn thought Nott’s Ninth a ‘fine achievement’, and while I have some reservations about the performance I’d say that’s a pretty fair assessment overall. I wish I could be as charitable about Iván Fischer’s 2013 recording with the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel), or Daniel Harding’s 2016 one with the Swedish Radio SO (Harmonia Mundi); for very different reasons, they’re way behind the frontrunners in this crowded field.

By contrast, I was very impressed by what Tony Duggan called ‘the sheer power and eloquence’ of Alan Gilbert’s Ninth, recorded with the Stockholm Phil in 2008 (BIS). Ditto Bernard Haitink’s two most recent versions: the first, filmed with the Concertgebouw in 2011, is part of a multi-conductor centenary box from RCO Live; the second is a live audio recording made with the Bavarian Radio SO six months later (BR Klassik). It’s a work the Dutchman has made his own, these two performances as lofty and as intensely moving as any I know. Also in that RCO Live set is an electrifying Sixth with Lorin Maazel, a conductor who was persistently unpopular with UK orchestras and critics alike. That said, his last recorded Ninth, with the Philharmonia in 2011, is superb (Signum). Alas, he was a notoriously erratic baton waver, the accompanying Seventh quite bizarre (and not in a good way). And to round off this mini-survey, John Quinn has just reviewed an intriguing Ninth from Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, recorded live in 2018 (Brattle Media).

Upcoming Ninths? No doubt we’ll get them from the ‘other’ Fischers, Thierry in Salt Lake City (Reference) and Ádám in Düsseldorf (C-AVI). So far, their respective cycles have been more variable than most, so I’m in no particular rush to hear their thoughts on this symphony. That said, I’m very impatient to review the rest of François-Xavier Roth’s ongoing Mahler series for Harmonia Mundi, which has already yielded revitalising accounts of the 1893/4 Titan, Third and Fifth symphonies. Not surprisingly, some of these have been made MusicWeb Recordings of the Month, and will surely be among my pick of the year’s best releases. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Roth’s Mahler project is probably the most important - and interesting - one to appear in the past fifty years or so. All of which underlines the challenge facing Blomstedt and his Bambergers here.

The Swede’s Andante comodo starts rather well, with characterful winds and firm, cleanly articulated rhythms. Also, Markus Spatz’s lucid, naturally balanced recording manages to combine ear-pricking timbres - the burnished brass and those soft tam-tam strokes are particularly well caught - with plenty of heft when required; a real bonus in a wide-ranging, multi-layered work such as this. Blomstedt’s tempi are nicely judged, his phrasing is attractive, and the strength of his narrative is never in doubt. (Which is more than one can say about his oddly hesitant ‘Resurrection’.) At one point in his review of this Ninth, John Quinn describes this conductor’s approach as ‘sturdy’, but I prefer ‘unencumbered’; the result is a taut, forward-looking performance that makes Haitink’s various readings appear too moulded and overstuffed at times. Yet, paradoxical as it may seem, Blomstedt, acutely aware of the score’s inherent loveliness, draws ravishing sounds from his orchestra, who play far better for him than they did for Nott in 2008.

The second movement, with its trademark Ländler, is no less revealing, the ‘hear through’ nature of the recording just right for this deft and dancerly interlude. But it’s Blomstedt and his band who really shine, as they bring a freshness and spontaneity to these oft-heard tunes. True, Haitink and the BRSO, darkly refulgent, find a degree of gravitas here that others might underplay; then again, one would expect nothing less of a conductor and ensemble long steeped in Mahler’s remarkable output. As for Blomstedt’s Rondo-Burleske, it’s essayed with unusual energy and emphasis; even so, he unearths more colour and nuance from the score than many of his rivals do. Indeed, I was struck by how much life there is in this movement, and by the Sibelian build and blend of its climaxes. Make no mistake, this is echt-Mahler, albeit filtered through a different lens (cf. Roth’s expectation-confounding Fifth).

The Adagio is the make-or-break section, though, and the heartfelt strings at the start of Blomstedt’s finale signal we’re in for something rather special. As so often with this performance, there’s an aura of music being ‘caught on the wing’, as it were; this is enhanced - nay, intensified - by a startling sense of presence, something only the best concert recordings seem able to achieve. Unhurried, Blomstedt excavates the score, inviting listeners to marvel at what he’s found. (That’s a defining feature of Roth’s Mahler, too.) Poise, passion, profundity, it’s all here, a thrilling confluence of talents that seems entirely right for what is surely the most powerful and prescient symphonic movements of all time.

Turning to Haitink, his long, seamless lines are always superbly sustained, the mood invariably - and appropriately - stoical. By contrast, Blomstedt is more trenchant, yet his reading is just as cogent and compelling, his epiphanies no less impressive for being more austerely done. Moreover, in their different ways both men catch the all-important sense of an ending, of a long musical tradition on the cusp of irrevocable change. To cap it all, Blomstedt finds an extraordinary evanescence in the closing pages that few, if any, of his colleagues can match. And as this is one piece I feel uncomfortable applauding, even after a decent interval, I’m relieved the audience’s response has been edited out.

An outstanding Mahler 9, supremely well played and recorded; a very significant addition to the catalogue.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: John Quinn

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