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Mahler: Symphony No 9 / Norrington, Stuttgart Radio SO

Mahler / Radio Sinfonieorchester / Norrington
Release Date: 04/27/2010 
Label:  Swr Music   Catalog #: 93244   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Symphony No. 9 Roger Norrington, cond; Stuttgart RSO HÄNSSLER 93.244 (72:09)

Sir Roger Norrington’s Mahler symphony series includes, to date, performances of Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 5, none of which I have heard, but I was very curious to hear his recording of the Ninth because this is a much bigger symphony, in dimensions as well as emotional demands, than Nos. 1, 4, or 5. For me, there were two question marks going in. I had not really thought of Read more Norrington as a Mahler conductor, and in my personal experience most Ninths that fit onto one CD have problems in either feeling or interpretation. Barbirolli’s famous Berlin Philharmonic version is an excellent interpretation but lacks a little in feeling (the Berliners’ fault, not his) while one of the most prized of vintage recordings, Bruno Walter’s 1938 performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, always struck me as raw, edgy, and jittery, though this may have had something to do with the pressing I heard, which was one of those early CD versions on EMI from the 1980s.

Mahlerians like to claim that the Seventh is the most difficult of his symphonies to bring off well, but in my view nearly all the post- Wunderhorn symphonies are hard in one way or another. The Ninth is hard because one must decide at which points in the score one must emphasize certain details, whether to go for an objective view or pull out all the emotional stops, and how the movements relate to each other in tempo and use of space. The use of space in Mahler is, indeed, one of the things that makes his symphonies continually challenging as well as interesting, and it is for this reason alone that I tend to shy away from mono performances no matter how legendary the conductor or interpretation. (I make only two exceptions, Carl Schuricht’s fabulous 1939 performance of Das Lied von der Erde and Leopold Stokowski’s equally exceptional 1950 reading of the Eighth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic.)

Norrington, bless his heart, has produced one of the finest Ninths I’ve ever heard. He seems to feel instinctively when to press forward and when to hold back, when to inject emotion into the score and when to play it elegantly and elegaically. His liner notes argue that having the string section play primarily with straight tone, using vibrato only on occasion for expression, was indeed a feature of late-Romantic orchestras. He points particularly to the Vienna Philharmonic’s 1938 recording with Walter, which still included Mahler’s brother-in-law Arnold Rosé as concertmaster, and whose string section was the very last to adopt constant vibrato. Well, of course this got me thinking. If this was true of the 1938 version of the Ninth Symphony, was it not true of all broadcasts and recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic in the electrical era? Such a list would include not only Walter’s famed recordings of Das Lied and Wagner’s act I of Die Walküre, but also those Beethoven symphonies that Felix Weingartner recorded with the orchestra, the 1935 performances of the Bach violin concertos with the equally straight-toned Bronislaw Huberman, and Arturo Toscanini’s 1934 broadcast of Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March from Götterdämmerung and his 1937 Salzburg opera performances ( Die Zauberflöte, Fidelio, Die Meistersinger, and Falstaff ). Also, since Toscanini was the oldest conductor to survive into the era of high fidelity and early stereo, he must have grown up with straight-toned string sections. Is it possible that he employed this aesthetic with the NBC Symphony? Not so—but he did seek out string players in every section who had a perfect vibrato, meaning one that was relatively fast and completely even, with little or no deviation above or below the sound wave. Such a string section, even when playing at full volume, would naturally allow for greater clarity than one that employed a wider or warmer vibrato, but if such a section is not miked properly—and it often wasn’t—it would tend toward harshness.

To return to Norrington, however, one must give him great credit for producing a sound with straight-toned strings that, to the casual listener, does not sound particularly different from the norm. Only by listening diligently through headphones does one notice the straight string tone, and then only if one is looking for it. I consider this a compliment because, after all, it is the quality of the performance and not the means by which the performance is produced that makes or breaks the record. This Ninth is now on my short list of great performances, alongside Solti and Michael Halász. I recommend it very highly.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 9 in D major by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1908-1909; Austria 

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