Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Also Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen; Death and Transfiguration. Otto Klemperer, New Philharmonia and Philharmonia Orchestras. EMI 0946 3 80003 2 7. (2 disc set)

EMI issued this 1967 Mahler Ninth recording a few years earlier in their "Klemperer Legacy" series, but I never had the chance to buy or hear it. Which means I had not heard it since its old LP days and had quite forgotten how persuasive it is. Now that it's been remastered in EMI's "Great Performances of the Century" line, it appears to sound better than ever. In fact, it sounds better than practically anything currently on the market, new or old.

Although Mahler's last completed symphony was the crowning jewel in his symphonic cycle, beauteous and sublime, it has always been somewhat ambiguous. Many listeners have interpreted its expressionistic content as an optimistic journey into the light, ending in sweet and everlasting repose, while others have seen it as a pessimistic view of the world's future where degeneration and decay are our lot. I favor the former view, but I suppose there is something to be said for the second viewpoint as well. At the time of the work's composition in 1909, Mahler was aware that he was gravely ill, and in addition he may have foreseen the coming of the Great War and the end of civilization as his generation had known it. So, there is every possibility of interpreting the symphony optimistically or pessimistically. Klemperer, who first performed the work in 1925, just thirteen years after its première, knew the piece backwards and wisely took mostly the former course.

In my own view, the opening and closing movements are meant to be relaxed, serene, the first movement an admiration of life and all its beauty, the last a resignation of life's passing and a kind of contentment with what is yet to come. In between, Mahler provides some doubt, with a somewhat unruly yet bucolic second movement, followed by one of his patented, parodic Rondo-Burleskes. Whilst Klemperer judges these movements perfectly, he never aggrandizes them or makes them too alluringly lyrical.  Instead, he is a no-nonsense sort of guy who lets the music speak for itself.  And, of course, that's what Klemperer did best, allowing the structure of grand music to speak grandly. Even though I am also greatly fond of Barbirolli's performance with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) and Haitink's with the Concertgebouw (Philips), I believe Klemperer's reading deserves to be among their company in the top ranking.

Because Klemperer's Mahler Ninth is just a few minutes beyond the capacity of a single CD, EMI have spread it out over two discs, with the final movement on disc two, along with Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen and Death and Transfiguration. Klemperer recorded the Strauss pieces in 1961, also with the Philharmonia Orchestra but several years before he did the Mahler, and the sound is of the same high quality as, maybe even better than, the 1967 sound.  In both cases, it is superb:  detailed yet natural, with a wide stereo spread, good orchestral depth, and a warm ambient bloom. I know that Barbirolli, Abbado, Haitink, Karajan, Bernstein, and others have produced fine Mahler Ninths, but to my mind and my ears, none of them is any better than Klemperer's.  It is a joy.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa