Déjà Review: this review was first published in February 2003 and the recording is still available.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (1909-1910)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. 1999, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
Deutsche Grammophon 4716242 [81]

This is the last and the best of the three new Mahler recordings by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra that have been released by DG in 2002. I have already reviewed the Third Symphony (review) and the Seventh (review) and now here is the Ninth. Whilst all three came out in quick succession and in uniform livery their provenance is very different. The Ninth under review was recorded from two concert performances at the Berlin Festival in September 1999. The Third came from a single concert performance in London one month later and was produced by the BBC. Both of these stayed in the DG vaults for three years before their release this year. The Seventh, on the other hand, was recorded from performances in Berlin in May 2001 towards the end of Abbado’s tenure as BPO Chief Conductor. What they all have in common, however, is that they are Abbado’s second recordings of these works. I had a lot to say about conductors revisiting earlier works on record in my review of the Seventh and in that case could see no reason why it was felt necessary for Abbado to re-record that piece. Where the Third Symphony was concerned I enjoyed and much preferred the new to the old and in the case of this Ninth I feel much the same, though it is more marginal.

Abbado has always been a fine interpreter of this symphony, itself a lucky one on record, but in this second recording I prefer a greater sense of pressing forward in strategic passages of the first and third movements especially. It makes for a slightly tougher and rather more astringent view of a work too often taken to be a long farewell and very little else. His earlier Vienna Philharmonic recording was unique in his first Mahler recordings in that it too was taken from “live” performance. However this time I think I can hear a greater sense of the “live” experience coming across and this will always find favour with me and I suspect many others. There is a price to pay for this, though. The engineers in the Philharmonie in Berlin are less sure of themselves than their predecessors were in Vienna’s Musikverein. The Berlin acoustic is very different too: less warm, more analytical, though not entirely lacking in atmosphere. The result this time brings some quirks of balance, most especially in the first movement where there is highlighting of solo instruments – harp and cor anglais especially – and what appears to be some “limiting” at climaxes where clinching fortissimos shy away a little where they should punch home. So this is a much more manipulated sound picture all through. Overall it’s a close-in balance and the feeling is that you are sitting in the stalls quite close to the platform. Yet, as the performance went on, I found that I came to value this sound picture as so much of Mahler’s inner detail is plain for all to hear with enough air behind the instruments to give perspective. So I found this sound balance surprisingly good for home listening with the caveats mentioned.

The first movement impresses with a fine unity of purpose from first bar to last and as such I think counts as a fine achievement repaying repeated listening. Even in passages where the music is just a series of fragmentary daubs you are aware of the strong symphonic undertow beneath it. So, in all, Abbado’s intellectual grasp is formidable, but I’m aware that some Mahlerites might complain that this is at the expense of emotional power to be found in recordings by other conductors like Bernstein (DG D 201182), for example, with the same orchestra, also “live” in the same hall. I would counsel caution in taking this as a minus point, though. There is a tradition in the performance of this movement that maintains a stoic face is just as valid. Klemperer is the best representative of this approach in his great EMI recording (EMI 5 67036 2) though it must be said that Klemperer’s more austere, plainer sound palette reinforces this idea and his overall tempo is slower than Abbado’s basic andante comodo. Though I think Abbado is closer to what Mahler intended. Abbado’s ability to extract a degree of sweetness in some the passages of repose, the lebwohl passages of the movement, as we might call them, make a fine counterpoise to the tougher, harsher passages where the brass snarl and the strings dig in vividly. In these passages Abbado does soften his tone, but it may take you until the end of the movement before you quite realise it has taken place, as this conductor is always careful with his contrasts which are never too sharply delineated. You have to listen hard to an Abbado performance as there is never the instant gratification of a Bernstein or a Rattle, but the dividends are maybe even greater. In the recapitulation after the great central crisis in this first movement listen to as good a summation of what has gone before as any you will hear in other recordings – beautifully argued, shorn of seedy sentimentality, very satisfying. What wonderful solo horn playing in the great duet between that instrument and the flute too. They may be highlighted by the sound balance, as indicated earlier, but with playing like this it hardly matters.

The two central movements are firstly remarkable for the stunning, virtuoso playing of the orchestra. This may be “live” but there are very few examples of insecurity in this playing. But this virtuosity is never just for its own sake. It always serves the music and Claudio Abbado’s purpose for it. The second movement scherzo reflects every colour Mahler paints it in with the close recording rendering every detail clear, woodwind especially good. Abbado observes but doesn’t force on us the three tempi markings that Mahler indicates and this may disappoint some who, as with the first movement, prefer their contrasts sharper, therefore pushing home a more emotional approach. However, after the first movement’s understatement of contrasts, this corresponding approach here fits and is another example of “through-thinking” on the conductor’s part that demands attention from the listener and therefore engages more. The listener must also do some work in Mahler too, remember. Because, just as in the first movement, where Abbado marked up a sweetness where appropriate, here in the second movement too he is aware of a gentle world-weary quality in those falling lebwohl phrases once again. Likewise in the third movement Rondo-Burleske the close recording allows for Mahler’s crucially important counterpoint to be followed accurately and so this then contrasts with the nostalgic tone of the central interlude. Abbado delivers this sweetly and simply, linking it with the lebwohl moments in the first two movements and looking forward to great elegy of the last. But it’s in the final section of the third movement where I believe Abbado justifies himself triumphantly. If this movement is ultimately about depicting a sweet world seen to be self-destructing then Abbado pulls that effect off in the way that, like Horenstein used to do, he slowly increases the tempo until at the end you are on the edge of your seat.

The last movement reflects and justifies Abbado’s overall approach in again subtly matching stoicism with a world-weariness that never descends anywhere near sentimentality. There is a deep and rich string sound that can swell out to a glorious mass and then ebb down to gossamer threads when needed. The latter especially in the intimate passages that have about them the air of chamber music with all the players listening to each other carefully. Notice also the excellent use of portamenti in the string playing here. The main climax is a paean to the entire symphony but it stays, characteristically for Abbado, within any overt grandiloquence and seems to come from within the texture. The coda is sustained beautifully too. It is never stretched on the rack as it sometimes is, always it maintains this conductor’s sharpness of focus and, I think, is unusually aware of the link to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.

For reference versions you must turn first to studio recordings by Haitink (Philips 50 464 714), Barbirolli (EMI 7 63115 2), Walter (Sony SM2K 64452), Klemperer (EMI 5 67036 2) and perhaps Boulez (DG 289 457 581-2). Comparable, though very different as a live recording, is Bruno Walter’s first recording in 1938 (Dutton CDBP 9708) which is of equal stature to ones by Horenstein (BBC Legends BBCL 4075-2).

For me this is the best of the three new Mahler recordings from Abbado in 2002. In playing and interpretation it takes its place among the finest and I recommend it warmly.

Tony Duggan

Tony Duggan’s survey of Mahler 9

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