Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin.  Warner Classics 2564 64316-2.

Another Mahler Ninth. The composer's continuing popularity goes unrestrained, probably because he offers so much, from the subtle to the grandiose, from the sublime to the bombastic. Certainly, the Ninth, Mahler's last completed symphony, contains a little of each, yet it does so in the most-moving manner of all his works. Which is what I missed most about Barenboim's recording with the Staatskapelle Berlin. While every note is polished and in place, the whole failed to moved me.

The Ninth has always been more than a little problematical. One can interpret it as expressionistic and optimistic, a journey into light, ending in sweet and everlasting repose; or it can be seen as pessimistic, a view of degeneration, death, and decay. I favor the optimistic view, but I can understand how at the time of the work's composition in 1909, Mahler was aware that he was gravely ill, and that he may also have foreseen the coming of the Great War and the end of civilization as he knew it. So, there is every possibility of reading the symphony optimistically or pessimistically.

I see the opening and closing movements as so relaxed and serene, they can only be an admiration of life and all its beauty, followed by a resignation of life's passing and a kind of contentment with what is yet to come. In the two middle movements, Mahler comes up with a typically bizarre and unruly set of Landlers, waltz-scherzos, and parodic Rondo-Burleskes. Frankly, only these middle movements under Barenboim worked for me. But even they seem forced and overemphatic. I was not touched by the outer movements as I should have been, nor was I too fascinated by the inner ones. Not a good sign. Of course, I may be spoiled by the classic performances of Barbirolli and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), Haitink and the Concertgebouw (Philips), Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI), and both Abbado and Bernstein with the BPO (DG). In those hands, the symphony reaches great heights and leaves one with a lasting impression of beauty and calm. Barenboim simply left me admiring its technical accomplishment.

Warner Classics recorded the performance live in 2005, but you don't hear a peep from the audience, and, thankfully, there is no closing applause to ruin the mood. The sonics are fine, although a tad close, with what sounds like a slightly elevated upper bass and a distinct presence in the upper midrange. The result is a touch cloudy and bright, but I'm sure the acoustic remains fairly faithful to its concert-hall setting.


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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.

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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa