I also prize several other Mahler Ninth Symphony recordings: one from Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), one from Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (HDTT or Sony), and one from Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (HDTT or EMI/Warner). However, Barbirolli is high on my list, perhaps a shade more idiosyncratic than Haitink if not so long breathed and serene. For me, Barbirolli, Haitink, Walter, and Klemperer surpass all other versions, even the highly regarded ones by Karajan (DG), Abbado (DG), Giulini (DG), Bernstein (Sony or DG), and Kubelik (DG), offering more in the way of human feeling, with fewer of the grand gestures.
Whatever, Barbirolli so loved the Finale that he asked EMI if he could record it out of sequence so 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 the 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 HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfer) of the Mahler Ninth is about the fifth or sixth 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; then an EMI Japan HQCD (Hi Quality Compact Disc) reissue; and now the HDTT. The sound on HQCD and HDTT is almost as good as anything recorded today, 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 commendable transparency. It's one of my Desert Island Favorites for good reason.
|Sir John Barbirolli|
Mahler's Ninth is a beautiful accomplishment, one in which I have found joy over the years with, as I've said, several excellent recordings: Otto Klemperer's is a sublime and lofty account; Bernard Haitink's is an absolutely gorgeous rendering; and Walter's is certainly authoritative. But Barbirolli's performance is so impassioned it's hard not to fall in love with it. And I say this meaning no disrespect to other fine conductors of the work I've mentioned 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 Barbirolli, Klemperer, Haitink, and Walter than anyone else.
Moving on, Mahler's opening movement is extremely lengthy, close to 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 long period is not easy, yet Barbirolli and the others are able to do so with steady, straightforward tempos and unexaggerated inflections. Barbirolli and Walter in particular make the music all the more lucid and expressive with their understated approaches. Although you won't find the same degree of impetuous emotion found, say, in a Bernstein account, what you will find instead is a more intimate, more nuanced view of the score.
Next we get one of Mahler's typically bizarre scherzos, this one in a waltz-like tempo, a landler. Mahler suggested that he intended it to represent "a friendly leader, fiddling his flock into the hereafter." He probably meant it to be ironic.
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.
Mahler ends the symphony on that 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 had accepted his own eventuality. The finale is filled with considerable longing yet gentle repose, as though the conductor was content with his fate and ready to embrace it. It's a beautiful and highly moving conclusion, and Barbirolli understands it perfectly.
Producer Ronald Kinloch Anderson and engineer Ernst Rothe recorded the symphony for EMI at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin in 1964. and HDTT remastered and transferred the recording from a 15ips 2-track tape. I listened and compared the sound of the HDTT product mainly to that of the EMI-Japan HQCD disc I had on hand. The Japanese product sounded to me just a tad smoother and more transparent all around. The HDTT disc sounded marginally warmer through much of the midrange but with a high end a little brighter and sometimes a tad edgier. Both sounded good, but when you factor in that the HDTT remastering is cheaper and easier to find (in a variety of formats, including physical product and downloads), it makes an attractive alternative.
I might add, too, that the Barbirolli performance is one of the few recordings of Mahler's Ninth that fits on a single CD. The symphony usually comes in around eighty-some minutes under most other conductors, necessitating two discs. But Barbirolli manages a still-unhurried reading at just a shade under eighty minutes, thus (barely) fitting on one disc. Although it's a small thing, it can be important to some listeners.
For more information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: