Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD325 (2-disc set)

Bigger record companies often rerelease some of their best older material, but they don't always remaster them, make them sound closer to their master tapes. That's where smaller, audiophile companies who specialize in remastering old favorites come in, companies like First Impression Music, Hi-Q, JVC, and the subject of the present review, HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

The thing is, even the audiophile companies don't always choose the very best material to remaster. Sometimes it's because they don't have the material available to them, sometimes because they don't have the rights to the material, and sometimes because they just haven't run across the material so they don't know just how good it is. Then there are the gems, the absolute dyed-in-the-wool classic performances in genuine audiophile-quality sound. Such a case is this HDTT remastering of Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler's (1860-1911) the Ninth Symphony, a recording originally made in 1961 with Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. It is an unquestionable classic in every way, interpretively and sonically.

First, why is the performance so good interpretatively? Consider the fact that it was Bruno Walter who premiered the work in Vienna in 1912, and that Walter was one of only a couple of conductors making it into the stereo age who knew and worked with Mahler (another was Otto Klemperer). Second, why is the recording so good? Consider that when Columbia Records made it, they had a pretty good team of players at their disposal in the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble the record company assembled specifically for the purpose of making their recordings, many of the players coming from either the Los Angeles Philharmonic when recording on the West Coast (as was the case here, in Hollywood) or the New York Philharmonic. Then consider that listeners at the time didn't always get to hear how very good the recordings could sound because the record company didn't always provide the best sound on their LP's of the day. But HDTT in their transfer of the 4-track tape have rectified that situation by giving us something that must come awfully close to the sound of the original master tape.

However, I'll get to the actual sound of the recording in a minute. Before that, let's talk about the music and Maestro Walter's realization of it. You'll remember that Mahler became ever more obsessed with death in his later years, something that manifested itself in his final few symphonies, Das Lied von der Erde (1908), the Ninth Symphony (1909), and the unfinished Tenth. The fact that he had recently lost his daughter and that he learned he was dying of a chronic heart disease probably precipitated this preoccupation. Anyway, the composer was also reluctant to assign a number to his Ninth because of Beethoven's never getting past a ninth and Bruckner never completing a ninth. In any case, Mahler's Ninth is both melancholy and vigorous, yet it is ultimately liberating in that it offers by the end a profound vision of peace.

Mahler's Ninth is a beautiful accomplishment, one in which I have found joy over the years with several excellent recordings: Otto Klemperer's sublime and lofty account with the New Philharmonia (EMI); John Barbirolli's impassioned reading with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), which also has the advantage of fitting onto a single disc; Bernard Haitink's absolutely gorgeous rendering (Philips); and this recording with Walter. I mean no disrespect to other fine conductors of the work like Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Simon Rattle, Carlo Maria Giulini, Georg Solti, Benjamin Zander, Riccardo Chailly, and the like. I simply find greater pleasure in Klemperer, Barbirolli, Haitink, and Walter. And Walter, like Klemperer, enjoys the distinction of being possibly more authoritative than the others.

Mahler's opening movement is extremely lengthy, about half an hour, longer than most of Mozart's symphonies in their entirety. In it Mahler presents dual themes of calm hope on the one hand and extreme passion on the other. Sustaining the score's intensity and momentum (and the listener's interest) over such a period can't be easy, yet Walter is able to do so with steady, straightforward tempos and unexaggerated inflections. He makes the music all the more lucid and expressive with his understated approach. You won't find the same degree of impetuous emotion found in, say, Barbirolli's or Bernstein's accounts; what you'll find instead is a more intimate, more nuanced view of the score. It is quite refreshing.

Next we get one of Mahler's typically bizarre scherzos, this one in a waltz-like tempo, a landler, Mahler suggesting that he intended it to represent "a friendly leader fiddling his flock into the hereafter." He probably meant it to be ironic. Walter does not play up the movement's strange or unusual features but presents them as luminously as possible, giving us an honest picture of the proceedings. With Walter, it's an illuminating experience, the movement ending on a sweet and tranquil note.

The third movement is a Rondo-Burleske. It's sort of a continuation of the preceding movement's mood of mocking the pleasures of life. Still, it tends to turn more serious as it goes along. Walter handles it with a playful gusto.

Mahler ends the symphony on an appropriately gentle note in the final Adagio, possibly a note of resignation. Of the Ninth Symphony Mahler said "There is no more irony, no sarcasm, no resentment whatever; there is only the majesty of death." Apparently, the composer was resigned to his own eventuality. As was Walter in the Indian summer of his own life when he made this recording. The conclusion is filled with considerable longing yet gentle repose, as though the conductor himself was content with his fate and ready to accept it. It's a beautiful and highly moving performance.

Columbia originally made the recording on January 26, 1961 at American Legion Hall, Hollywood, California, and HDTT transferred it to the present disc from a Columbia 4-track tape. Compared to the ancient CD version I had on hand, the new HDTT transfer is clearer, less veiled, smoother, and less edgy. Depth and dynamics also appear better, giving the whole presentation a most-realistic presence. The stereo spread is extremely wide, bass is more than adequate, and highs sparkle. It's a really good recording, with plenty of bite, impact, air, and dimensionality. In short, a great, unaffected performance sounds better than ever.

For further information about the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa