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Mahler Symphony No. 9 in D

Gramophone April 1999

The key to the spirit of this remarkable performance comes on page 6 of Benjamin Zander's booklet-note: "The ideal orchestra for the work would be one composed entirely of great individualists, each with the courage to play what he is given, regardless of what the others are doing." In other words, nothing could be less appropriate to Mahler's last complete symphony than the plush, homogenized sound aspired to be some modern orchestras. Take a look at any page of the score of Mahler's Ninth and you'll see that Zander has a point. Mahler seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to emphasize the individuality of the players - widely contrasting colours, dynamics, expression. But you don't have to look at the score - or even listen to Zander's lovingly detailed recorded talk (included on a separate disc). Just listen to the opening of a couple of minutes of this new recording. Zander has managed to communicate his idea so completely to the Philharmonia that instead of one sound, we hear countless vivid expressive details - all adding up to one organic, multi-dimensional statement. I realized I was hoping for something like this when I reviewed Boulez's DG Mahler 9- and how bland that now seems beside Zander. The nearest comparison I can think of is Bruno Walter's 1938 Vienna Philharmonic recording - clearly the sound of an orchestra of great individualists, united in a common musical cause. You can also sense something like that in Barbirolli's Mahler 9 with the Berlin Philharmonic - the violin lines at the beginning of the finale sound like many violins striving together rather than one super-violin.
Zander's performance is more expansive than Walter's, but there's hardly any less expressive tension. In fact, that's the other thing that's so remarkable about this performance - the emotional intensity and impetus. Not since Bernstein (on a two disc set) have I heard a modern recorded Mahler 9th that is so urgently communicative at every stage, though Zander manages to get his message across without stretching tempos or underlining climaxes in red. And few recordings convey such a sense of this huge, diverse symphony as a single statement. The second movement, for instance, can sound intrusive - irrelevant even, after that long, sublime, goodbye at the end of the first. But here, when the slow landler-tune arrives, the connection with the first movement - emotionally as well as motivically - is beautifully clear. This is still the same story, with the same hero. And the end is remarkably moving; I found I was holding my breath through the long silences. No wonder the Barbican audiences responds in silence - a full 47-seconds before the applause begins! A great Mahler Nine? If that's the final critical verdict, I shan't be a bit surprised. SJ


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