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Mahler: Symphony No 9 / Barenboim, Berlin Staatskapelle

Mahler / Barenboim / Skb
Release Date: 02/22/2011 
Label:  C Major   Catalog #: 703708  
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Daniel Barenboim
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Symphony No 9 & Daniel Barenboim, cond; Staatskapelle Berlin C MAJOR 703708 (DVD: 79:00) Live: Berlin 4/5/2009

& The Mahler Project: Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez working on the symphonies of Gustav Mahler (22:00)

In 2009, in anticipation of the Mahler centennial(s), Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim took the Read more Staatskapelle Berlin on the road with the complete Mahler symphonies, arriving at Carnegie Hall in May. Barenboim conducted symphonies 1, 5, 7, and 9 as well as Das Lied von der Erde ; Boulez conducted the remainder (the orchestral songs were also divided between the two). Though there were some criticisms of performances heard during the series (at least in New York), the Ninth was an unqualified success. This concert, recorded at the beginning of the whirlwind tour, demonstrates why.

As the program notes make clear, Barenboim eschews the extramusical associations common to discussions about Mahler and concentrates on the sounding music. His attention to detail is significant, with the beginning of the symphony closely scrutinized as the main theme is built from its fragmentary cells. The intensity builds quickly: Barenboim wastes no time in exploring the emotional terrain. His is the antithesis of performances like those of Zander and Tilson Thomas, who work more slowly, acquiring depth and intensity. Barenboim has actually shaved almost two minutes off the timing of his 2006 live recording with this orchestra (Warner, reviewed in Fanfare 31:1)—the performance as a whole is nearly four minutes shorter. This further concentration makes contrasts between darkness and light and dynamics that much more obvious. One is less aware of the broad sweep of this Andante and more aware of the turmoil of emotion—“do not go gentle into that good night.” Calm is finally achieved in the exquisitely prolonged coda.

Winds and strings are equally prominent in the Ländler. The movement is surprisingly light on its feet; this is not the heavily accented manner of Rattle, for instance. The waltz flies along, almost breathless, though the pace slackens for the slower Ländler; the waltz resumes “a bit faster than before,” as Mahler directs. There is piquancy to the interplay of themes that is often missing from less lively interpretations. The Rondo-Burleske is very precisely performed; the counterpoint of which Mahler was so proud is here very carefully preserved without the often-chaotic character of less disciplined performances. One notices not so much the speed as the concentrated power of these tightly wound themes. In the Trio, the sudden cessation of nervous energy is even more effective, as one glimpses the profound emotion of the finale. The furious coda is truly impressive.

After the onslaught of the Rondo, the Adagio’s sigh is indeed calming. At four seconds over 22 minutes in duration, this is one of the more flowing finales on record (Walter’s 1938 timing is a fleet 18), yet one is less aware of the pace than of the intensity of the playing. As in the opening movement, the swell of the emotional tide sweeps one along, though there is no anger here, just regret at what has been lost, and then acceptance.

By concentrating on just a few of the symphonies, Barenboim has refined his interpretations to the elemental. At a time when just about every conductor is tackling Mahler, and complete cycles abound, Barenboim’s is one of the few truly distinctive Ninths. The addition of the visual element of the DVD gives one some sense of how this is achieved.

The bonus program adds interesting background to the concert. The idea for the cycle came about while Boulez was visiting Berlin, conducting the Mahler Sixth Symphony. Boulez agreed to take on the “choral” symphonies because he hadn’t conducted them as often, which allowed Barenboim to concentrate on “his” symphonies. Barenboim on Boulez: “I’m happy to share the cycle with Pierre Boulez, first because he’s such a great musician and conductor, but also because of the way he conducts Mahler and the way he makes the music altogether. He gives the orchestra a lot of space in rehearsal. Sometimes it makes him look unemotional: He stands there, waving without a baton, and it looks like he’s uninvolved. Quite the opposite! He’s very involved. But he lets every member of the orchestra express themselves.” Boulez on Barenboim: “I watch when he conducts, how he handles his orchestra, what gestures he uses. That’s very impressive for me because I see, ‘Ah, that’s what he does to achieve his goal.’ I might not have achieved it the same way.” This rare cooperation between such high-profile musicians tells us as much about the men as it does about the music. These spoken views (in German, with subtitles provided) are supplemented with snippets of rehearsals featuring both conductors.

The sound (available in stereo and DTS 5.1 surround) is exemplary. The audio perspective is quite closely focused, with excellent detail, definition, and clarity; this close focus draws the listener into the performance. The video production is evenly divided between orchestra and conductor with a few distant shots of the entire stage. The picture is extremely sharp. Anyone seriously interested in Mahler should seek out this new DVD.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot

Recorded live from the Philharmonie, Berlin on 5 April 2009.
- The Mahler Project – Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez working on the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English (bonus)
Running time: 79 mins (concert) + 22 mins (bonus)
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 9 in D major by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Daniel Barenboim
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1908-1909; Austria 
Date of Recording: 04/05/2009 
Venue:  Philharmonie, Berlin 

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