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.

JJP

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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