Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Sir John Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

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, 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 Mahler's Ninth has been around for quite a while, since 1964, in fact, and it has successfully weathered the test of time. Like the music, the performance is sublime.

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
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, Mahler was also reluctant to assign a number to his Ninth because of so many other composers never having gotten past 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, 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/.

JJP

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

3 comments:

  1. Time to start a major rant about Warner Classics. You may not be aware of this but, around the time of EMI's 2011 remaster (which I'm not sure is the one used on the HQCD remaster, since it no longer seems to be available from ImportCDs; you get the 2011 remaster with an obi and a different serial number instead), they also made the remaster available as a 24/96 download...for a time. It would appear that, once Warner Classics took them over, they removed that 24/96 version from every major download store (I can't find it anywhere). Worse, they replaced it with a Redbook download version from the earlier, 2002 GROTC mastering, which, from your reports, isn't as good. And this isn't the only recording on which they've pulled these shenanigans -- EMI also made available a 24/96 download version of Jean Martinon's complete Debussy orchestral works. Now? Gone...with the only download version available being, once again, an older mastering in Redbook audio. It seems to me that Warner must have a real problem with high-resolution downloads, and is trying to flush them down the memory hole. If, by some chance, you find one still available, and have a high-resolution home streaming system, I advise you grab it before Warner makes it vanish as well.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I also recommend that the author consider comparing that HQCD version to the pure DSD256 version of the high definition tape transfers download. Frankly I don’t buy any of their CDs but I download a ton of their ultra high resolution tape transfers and they all sound amazing! Way way better than any redbook version for sure!

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  3. Allow me to put in a good word for a most worthy recorded version not mentioned here: Karel AnĨerl's on Supraphon.

    ReplyDelete

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa