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Zander's Mahler 9 elected to the Classical Hall of Fame

Christopher Abbot - Fanfare November/December 2002

It has been my experience that a recording (especially a live recording) is a woefully inadequate reminder of a concert event — a black and white still photograph from a Technicolor movie. One of the reasons I have been nominating this recording for the Hall of Fame—despite its relative youth—is that it is that rare exception. I was fortunate enough to hear Benjamin Zander conduct the Mahler Ninth with his "other" orchestra, the Boston Philharmonic, this past February. Upon relistening to this unique recording, I was privvy once again to the details that are only partially appreciated in the concert hall—even after Mr. Zander's pre-concert talk.

There can be no "best" recording of a work that stimulates so many individual and emotional responses, and which responds to a variety of interpretations—from Claudio Abbado to Hans Zender. I was initiated into this world, as were countless others, by Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein, who taught me to see the contradictions inherent in Mahler. But over the past three years, I find it is to this performance that I turn when I need answers to those vexing questions that Mahler invariably poses. Ideally, a recording of Mahler needs to be an almost mystical combination of the analytical and the emotional, and if one outweighs the other, the experience is less than whole.

As so often, it is a matter of details that add up to more than their aggregate sum. Mr. Zander's insistence upon dividing the violins antiphonally is a crucial interpretative point, since so much of the violin music is clarified if the voices are clearly delineated. But deeper than that, there are such touches as having the harpist's opening notes plucked near the soundboard, producing more inflection than is often the norm; or, the way the return to the opening tempo at the end of the second movement is made possible by rushing the upbeat of the opening figure, or the depth of feeling that is evoked as Christopher Warren-Green plays the last notes in the first movement by barely touching the strings with his bow. There are dozens of other such examples to detail that makes this performance feel closer to Maher than so many others.

But—it's too slow. A respected musician whose opinions I value, especially on Mahler, dismissed this performance thus. If timing is the measure, then Zander's first and last movements appear to be long, even protracted. But Bruno Walter's stereo recording from 1960, whose first movement is similarly timed, feels slow. I respectfully suggest that Benjamin Zander's tempos never feel slow if one truly concentrates and appreciates the wealth of detail that emerges when the orchestral textures are clarified. Leonard Bernstein picks you up and sweeps you along in an emotional tidal wave; Benjamin Zander shows you what you're missing if emotion is all you feel.

Part of what makes a great recording is, of course, the harmonious partnership between conductor and orchestra. It is clear that the Philharmonia and Zander have forged a mutually beneficial synthesis of uncommon musicianship. The last, and by no means negligible, element of the triumph of this performance is the sound. Telarc's reputation for state of the arts sonics is borne out by natural balances, wide dynamic range, and a soundstage that is both wide and deep—the nuances of Zander's interpretation are all rendered naturally and faithfully. The quite generous bonus (at three-for-one pricing) is the by-now familiar discussion disc, and even knowledgeable musicians can enjoy Mr. Zander's insights—as has been verified by critics and listeners alike.


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