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.

JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa