Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Also, Lieder from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn." Jessye Norman, John Shirley-Quirk; Bernard Haitink, Concertgebouw Orchestra. Philips 289 464 714-2 (2-disc set).

Some years ago, around 1999, I wrote about Philips's repackaging of Bernard Haitink's Mahler Ninth with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a Philips Duo set, coupled with Das Lied von der Erde. I said at the time that Haitink's 1969 recording of the Symphony No. 9 never sounded better. Then, a couple of years later, Philips remastered it yet again, this time using 96kHz, 24-bit technology and with a different coupling, the Wunderhorn lieder. The results were better than ever, and even though Philips is gone, the set is still available (see below).

On the plus side, the new issue really does sound slightly smoother to me than the older Philips CD, with a smidgen more depth to the orchestral field. On the minus side (or plus depending on your point of view), Philips spread the symphony over two discs, the fourth movement occupying the first track of the second disc. Maybe in spreading it out, Philips felt they were better able to accommodate the work's length without sacrificing any degradation of sound, but I'm not sure that's the main reason for the new issue sounding better. The other minus is that I miss Haitink's Das Lied von der Erde, even if it did sound a mite fierce sonically. Anyway, Jessye Norman and John Shirley-Quirk's singing on the Wunderhorn lieder, recorded in 1976, sounds beautiful, and Philips warmly recorded it. I'd say if one does not already have the superb Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau, Szell set on EMI, which seems to me performed with an even more pungent bite, this Philips version is a good alternative.

Bernard Haitink
Let me repeat one other thing: Mahler's final completed symphony was the crowning jewel in his symphonic cycle, gorgeous and sublime. But its meaning has always been a bit ambiguous. Some listeners have interpreted its somewhat expressionistic content as an optimistic journey into the light, ending in sweet and everlasting repose, which is the way Haitink presents it; yet others see the symphony as a pessimistic look into the world's future where degeneration and decay may be our lot. There is something, I suppose, one can say for this latter view. At the time he was writing the piece, Mahler was aware of his own illness and his possibly imminent demise, and he might have foreseen in 1909 the coming of the First World War and the end of civilization as his generation had known it. Nevertheless, under Haitink's direction there is little sign of this latter view.

Haitink's handling of the opening movement sounds relaxed, building to a grand, lyrical climax; the second movement appears evenly paced; the third movement is surprisingly outgoing for a conductor of Haitink's refined and contained temperament; and the finale comes across as beautifully controlled, the music diminishing gradually and evenly into eternal silence. It is a performance that deserves a ranking among the very best on record, maybe the very best on record, especially after Philips remastered it.

The catch: as I alluded earlier, Philips has long been out of business and finding copies of this particular set could be tricky (and expensive if you're not careful). Still, there are new copies available at low prices and even more economical used ones if you look carefully enough. The Amazon link below should make a good starting point.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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