Mahler: Symphony No. 9

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: Warner
ALBUM TITLE: Mahler
WORKS: Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
CATALOGUE NO: 2564 64316-2
Never, in my experience, has Mahler’s Ninth sounded more feral than Barenboim’s. From the first snarl of stopped second horn, both brass and woodwind are out for blood. You feel it in the apocalyptic trombones, the lurid, sometimes deliberately coarse clarinets and the stalking contrabassoon of the earthy Scherzo. Yet Barenboim also embraces an unearthly quiet at the other end of the spectrum. No one marks the painful crawls out of the first-movement abysses so carefully, and the trumpet which brings balm to the grinding banality of the Rondo-Burlesque displays an uncanny purity and innocence which I’ve not heard to the same extent in other performances. The final string whispers are as haunting as any, unfolding against the necessary background of silence; it’s hard to believe an audience was present at this live performance.

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If the interpretation has a drawback, it lies in Barenboim’s insistence in pressing the outer movements’ more serene processionals. I prefer a reading which goes for volatility rather than the monumental grandeur of late Bruno Walter or Zander. Yet Abbado, with the other great Berlin orchestra – amazing how quickly the Staatskapelle has come close to the standard of the Philharmonic – gauges better than Barenboim the drama of tension and release. The recording captures the amazingly balanced textures and solos with vividness, but everything’s up front, and there are times, as in the performance, where one longs for a sense of space. David Nice