Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (HQCD review)

Sir John Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI Japan TOCE-91071.

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:

In Japan, you can try HMV Online, which is where I usually shop:

Or Amazon Japan:


No comments:

Post a Comment

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa