Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 50999 5 01228 2 0 (two-disc set).
Sir Simon Rattle, one of the world's most distinguished conductors, leads the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the world's most distinguished musical ensembles. So, you'd think that EMI would provide them the best possible sound. Instead, either Rattle or the record company or both of them insist on recording most of his work live, in concert, and the results, as here, often diminish an otherwise fine performance. Not that the sound is bad; it's just not up to EMI's usual high standards of transparency and dimensionality. Ah, well....
You can count on Rattle to bring out all the longing, the suffering, the joy, and the transcendent beauty of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. He did it before in another live performance for EMI (with the Vienna Philharmonic), and he pretty much does the same here as I remember from the earlier account. Rattle takes the huge first movement, the "song without words" as it is sometimes called, very slowly, deliberately, painstakingly; the second and third movements he takes rather briskly, certainly appropriate to the Scherzo; and in the fourth movement Rattle wraps things up in a world of his own, rapturous, although not necessarily always completely affecting.
Interestingly, at the time Rattle made this recording (October, 2007), the Berlin Philharmonic had already released at least three better performances of Mahler's Ninth: two with DG, the earlier one with its longtime conductor, Herbert von Karajan, and a later one with Claudio Abbado, and one with EMI and Sir John Barbirolli. Rattle's interpretation doesn't quite measure up to those three, coming off a little too dramatically, with too much of Rattle involved and not enough of Mahler.
Upon direct comparison to some other favorites of mine in this piece, I continue to prefer Haitink (Philips) for pure beauty, the aforementioned Barbirolli for compactness of style, and Klemperer (EMI) for sheer structural soundness. Not to take anything away from Rattle, who is letter perfect, but these other three conductors seem to coax even more natural feeling from the music than he does.
About the sound: You'll not find the live performance at all distant or particularly beclouded as sometimes occurs when things are done in concert. Indeed, the recording seems to me too closely miked and lacking in depth. The spread is certainly wide enough, and the dynamics are fine, but there's no quality of spark or vividness about it to set it apart as anything particularly special. I suppose one could be kind and refer to it as "concert-hall realism."
And a final observation: The reading is just slightly too long for a single disc, yet EMI provide no coupling on this two-disc set.
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.
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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