Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (HQCD review)
The Finale to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, the Adagio, is quite possibly the most beautiful piece of music ever written. If that statement seems too bold for you, let me lessen it slightly by saying the Adagio is certainly among the most beautiful pieces ever written. There, now; we both feel better. In any case, Sir John Barbirolli's interpretation of the Symphony No. 9 has been around for quite a while, since 1964, in fact, and it has successfully weathered the test of time. Like the music, it is sublime.
I also prize two other Mahler Ninth Symphony recordings: one from Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw (Philips) and one from Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI), but Barbirolli is first on my list, perhaps a shade more idiosyncratic than Haitink if not so long breathed and serene. In my estimation, Barbirolli, Haitink, and Klemperer surpass all other versions, even the highly regarded ones by Karajan (DG), Abbado (DG), Giulini (DG), Bernstein (Sony or DG), Walter (Sony), and Kubelik (DG), offering more in the way of human feeling, with fewer of the grand gestures.
Anyway, Barbirolli so loved the Finale, he asked to record it out of sequence so that his performers could deal with it in the evening rather than in the morning when EMI and the Berlin orchestra originally scheduled it. "You can't expect people to perform that sort of music in morning. It must be done in the evening when they're in the right mood," he explained. It was his first, and to my knowledge only, recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, with whom he maintained a long and happy relationship in the concert hall if not in the studio.
This 2010 release of the Mahler Ninth from EMI Japan is actually about the forth or fifth incarnation of the recording I've owned. There was the EMI vinyl LP years ago; then the CD's, one that I remember in EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" series; then an EMI Japan remastering; and now the EMI Japan HQ (Hi Quality CD) reissue. The newest sound surpasses almost anything recorded today, and the Ninth is smoother than ever, with no apparent loss of sparkle. For a recording of its age (or for any age), it's excellent, projecting a realistic sonic presence, a reasonably wide stage width at a moderate miking distance, and more than acceptable depth, dynamics, and ambiance to make the experience appear natural. Best of all, it displays a remarkable transparency, and EMI accommodates it on a single disc. It's one of my Desert Island Favorites for good reason.
Now, I know what you're asking: How does one obtain the EMI Japan edition of the recording, how much does it cost, and is it really worth the trouble? Let's take those concerns in reverse order.
First, the worth of any recording is up to the individual. If you're an audiophile and want the absolute best sound, you may be willing to pay extra for it. Yes, I have found the sound of the EMI Japanese remasterings better--clearer, smoother, and more dynamic, especially the HQ editions--than their already excellent EMI English counterparts. So, for me, going the extra mile to get them is worth it. But I'm crazy, so who's to say it would be worth it to you?
Second, the cost of the Japanese product is not really that expensive in and of itself, on average about 1,300 yen each, or about $15.00 American dollars, depending on the exchange rate at any given time. But it's the postage that kills you. There are only a few places in America that sell EMI Japan classical imports, and they are usually out of stock on anything you may actually want. Therefore, I have mostly ordered directly from Japan, where the postage is high, about $24.00 a shipment, so I'd advise not buying just one disc; buy six or eight at a time, pay the 24 bucks, and get your money's worth. If you do it that way, say six discs per order, each disc is about $21, with no tax. That's still only a little more than you'd pay for a full-price disc in America, when you add in any applicable tax or shipping.
Finally, where to get EMI Japan products:
In America, there is Import CDs, which you probably should try first. Unfortunately, as I've said, they are often out of stock on popular Japanese import items: http://www.importcds.com
In Japan, you can try HMV Online, which is where I usually shop: http://www.hmv.co.jp/en/index.asp
Or Amazon Japan: http://www.amazon.co.jp
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.