Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Preiser Records
WORKS: Symphony No. 9 (arr. Mahler)
PERFORMER: Gabriele Fontana (soprano), Barbara Hölzl (mezzo-soprano), Arnold Bezuyen (tenor), Reinhard Mayr (bass); Slowakischer Phiharmonischer Chor; Tonkünstler Orchestra of Lower Austria/Kristjan Järvi
CATALOGUE NO: PR 90773 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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 To those accustomed to performances said to be faithful as possible to the composer’s original intentions, the notion of anyone presenting a re-orchestration of such a hallowed masterpiece as Beethoven’s Ninth would seem sacrilegious.

Yet Gustav Mahler’s reasons for undertaking such a task were not in fact determined by an unacceptable streak of personal vanity, but rather by a practical desire to achieve a more equitable balance between the large string sections that featured in the symphony orchestras at the turn of the 19th century and the wind and brass, the latter in particular hampered in Beethoven’s time by the limited number of notes that could be played on natural instruments.

In reworking Beethoven’s original scoring Mahler could not entirely suppress his own creative imagination, leading him not only to double the number of wind and brass instruments in orchestral tuttis but also to compose extra parts for piccolo, horns, trumpets and trombones, and even adding an E flat clarinet, tuba and a second timpani player to the orchestral mix.  

Mahler’s emendations might sound tasteless to those preoccupied with stylistic purity, but the results seem to me undeniably thrilling, especially when projected with the high-octane levels of dynamic energy that are offered by Kristjan Järvi and the Tonkünstler Orchestra of Lower Austria.

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The performance, recorded live in vivid SACD sound in Vienna’s Musikverein in June 2006, may not be entirely flawless, with a rather rushed feel to the slow movement and some raucous choral singing in the Finale. Yet such issues hardly detract from my enthusiasm for this stimulating and highly provocative release. Erik Levi