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

The Swedish-American conductor, Herbert Blomstedt is a musician whom I’ve admired for a very long time and I’ve acquired a good number of his recordings: it was, for instance, his EMI set of the symphonies and orchestral works (many of those performances reviewed here) that was largely responsible for me getting to know the music of the Danish master. If anything, his San Francisco remakes of the symphonies are finer still (review). Despite his extensive discography, I’m not aware that he’s recorded much Mahler – though I believe he set down for Decca the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony in San Francisco, a performance that I’ve not heard. Equally, I’m not aware that he’s made many recordings with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, though as we learn from the booklet, he has a long association with them, covering more than 200 concerts. In 2006 he was named the orchestra’s Honorary Conductor; this was only the third time they have bestowed the title.

Blomstedt, who was born in July 1927, was just a few weeks away from his 91st birthday when the performance(s) preserved here took place. Let it be said loudly and clearly that there is no sign whatsoever that age has diminished his powers. What we do get, however, is a reading that benefits from a lifetime’s musical experience and wisdom.

Blomstedt’s way with the first movement is patient. Not for him a succession of momentary highlights: he takes the long view. His overall timing of 29:27 is at the spacious end of the spectrum but never did I feel that the pace of the music was anything other than well-judged. At the very start the music is presented with a sense of regret and gentle longing but soon Mahler turns up the intensity and Blomstedt responds appropriately. When necessary, there’s great power in the orchestra’s playing and the very natural, detailed recording does the playing full justice. As I listened, I quickly came to the conclusion that everything seems so ‘right’; and in saying that I’m referring both to the detail and to the conductor’s overview of this amazing movement. I think it may help that Blomstedt is at the helm of a Central European orchestra: their sound seems to suit Mahler’s music so well. There’s a terrific intensity to the climaxes – which emerge as moments of crisis, without being in any way over-done – yet the lean, spare passages are equally well done. I was gripped by Blomstedt’s reading from first note to last and I admired enormously his searching approach to what is, for me, the finest and most challenging movement in all Mahler.

His approach to the Lšndler second movement is bluff and sturdy, albeit with plenty of ‘give’ where necessary. The performance is vivid and sharply articulated with every quirk, every accent relished and weighted to just the right degree. Copious attention to detail will have been required in rehearsal to get this music right, yet in concert the results sound spontaneous. Blomstedt ensures that the music has plenty of energy – both external and internal. Working in fruitful alliance with the engineers, he achieves great clarity and while the playing is polished there’s also a becoming tang, especially to the sound of the woodwind.

The Rondo-Burleske is trenchant and sharply projected. The performance is well controlled and the rhythms are taut and sharply delineated. Though this is a rondo we’re a very long way indeed from the sunny rondo that concludes the Fifth symphony; this is a much darker proposition which Blomstedt and his orchestra put beyond doubt. The score teems with detail yet the recording – and playing – means that we hear lots of detail. At 6:17 the shining trumpet ushers in the calmer central section. This is beautifully done, with the nostalgia brought out very well, yet the interpretation is in no way indulgent. At 8:45 a Till-like clarinet acts as a harbinger of the Rondo’s return yet Mahler holds back that return through a tense, teasing transition passage which Blomstedt navigates expertly. When the Rondo finally bursts out again (10:29) it does so with great vehemence. Here, Blomstedt keeps the performance on a tight rein for a while; this means that when he lets the music properly off the leash for the final melee (around 12:00) the effect is maximised.

Blomstedt’s account of the final Adagio is simply marvellous. As in the first movement, the listener reaps the rewards of his patience, especially in the first few minutes when the bittersweet intensity is allowed to build very naturally. The Bamberg strings play superbly for him and I particularly relished the strength of the cello/double bass line, which anchors the ensemble in a most satisfying fashion. More than once, as I listened, the conductor’s patience and the orchestra’s eloquence put me in mind of Bruckner. The cumulative effect of the music as it unfolds up to about 10:00 is deeply satisfying - the string polyphony expertly balanced – especially when the horns enrich the texture. After so much wonderful work from the strings it’s a delight to hear such fine solo woodwind playing in the passage from 12:31 that is underpinned by the harp ostinato. This is made into a wonderful passage of wistful reflection before (at 14:11) the impassioned string choir intervenes and takes us with ever-increasing urgency to the huge climax (15:09). This is delivered with great ardour and is a deeply felt cry from the heart. The Bamberg horns sound resplendent in the passage that follows, matching for eloquence their colleagues in the string section. Everything that we hear after the movement’s great climax – catharsis – is full of feeling, even when – no, especially when – the music is quiet. Blomstedt gradually and sympathetically winds the movement down to its coda. At 20:27 an ineffably wistful solo cello paves the way for the Adagissimo conclusion. Utter concentration from those musicians who are still involved in these last few pages means that the ending is so fragile, so lovely.

I imagine that, after a decent pause, Blomstedt and the orchestra were accorded a huge ovation. I would have given a lot to be present but, I reflected, had I been fortunate enough to be there I wonder how soon I would have been ready to join in the applause. For this is a performance, not just of the last movement but of the entire symphony, that demands complete concentration and at its conclusion you just want to exhale slowly and quietly, preserving the moment and reflecting on what you’ve just heard.

I have lost count of the number of recordings of Mahler’s Ninth that I have in my collection. Many of them are very fine but this one must now be ranked among the small elite group. It’s deeply considered, masterfully conducted and superbly played. Furthermore, recording engineer Markus Spatz and producer Sebastian Braun have reproduced the performance in splendid sound. This distinguished performance is worthy of a place of honour in any Mahler collection.

John Quinn

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