I’ve been hearing, and reading, so many mixed reviews of Haitink’s remakes of Mahler over the past 12–15 years—often negative—that I wanted to hear for myself just how this outstanding Mahler conductor (in my estimation) is faring lately. I was not disappointed. This Mahler Ninth shoots to the top of digital recordings, showing not only the younger generation of fast-and-clean-and-bloodless conductors howRead more it’s done, but also supercedes previously good issues by Tilson Thomas and Zander. In fact, this is a Mahler Ninth on par with the best versions of the past, for example John Barbirolli with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) and Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony (Decca), and in my book that is very high praise indeed.
The Ninth seems to be one of the Mahler symphonies that Haitink hasn’t rerecorded previously. According to ArkivMusic, his only other version is from way back in1969, issued both in the boxed set and as a two-CD package on Philips 464714 with Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Its reissue in 2001 was described by Christopher Abbot in Fanfare 24:6 as hitting “all the emotional peaks without lingering over details. … Haitink’s mastery of rhythmic complexity is impressive in the inner movements, particularly in the Rondo-Burleske, where the satire and energy are in perfect balance, and the beautiful central episode offers some respite amidst the maelstrom. In the very moving final Adagio, the sound complements the brilliant playing of the Concertgebouw. The burnished brass, mellow winds, and rich-toned strings produce a memorable valedictory.” Chris, I completely agree with you, and in fact these exact words can be applied to this new recording. So what’s the difference? Digital sound, for one. This new version is not only warmer but also clearer, little details emerging with remarkable audacity. Moreover, since this is a live recording whereas the 1969 version was a studio recording, it captures Haitink in his real element. A late friend of mine once observed, as far back as 1974, that Haitink was a much livelier and more responsive conductor in person than he was in the studio, and that remains true.
Forty years of orchestral improvement also plays into this disc’s excellence. Whereas back in 1969 one had to look to the very best of established orchestras (New York Phil, Boston and Chicago symphonies, Philadelphia in this country; LPO, LSO and Philharmonia in England; Berlin and Vienna philharmonics), we now hear superb playing even from Irish and Bolivian orchestras. The Bavarian Radio Orchestra, even in 1969, was a good group, but 40 more years of refinement and improvement have also made it great. I daresay that a blindfold test would not reveal much difference in richness of timbre or excellence of section work between this disc and, say, Solti’s Chicago Symphony, once ranked the finest orchestra in the world.
Haitink has managed to shave almost exactly one minute off the playing time for this symphony (the 1969 recording ran 80:45, just a bit too long for one CD in those days, though modern technology has given us 81- and 82-minute CDs), which allows it to fit on a single disc. This is not an insignificant thing when one factors cost into the mix. At a time when most people’s funds for extras are down and record-buying has become expensive, this single-disc Mahler Ninth makes economic as well as musical sense.
I’d also place this new performance above Roger Norrington’s fascinating version of the symphony employing straight tone in the strings (Hänssler 93.244). Even though Norrington does touch on the tragic cast of the first movement, and his second is lively, his lighter orchestra leads to a lighter emotional reading. Just listen, for instance, to the jump up to the quicker tempo in the second movement: Haitink fully exploits the composer’s quirky rhythms and grotesqueries of orchestration, but in Norrington’s hands it sounds lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick. A cheery, Christmassy reading of the score just isn’t good enough here, and though Norrington recovers to give a fine performance of the last two movements, they aren’t on the same level with Haitink. If you love this symphony, this is a reading you really should hear; and if you’ve been waiting for a good, modern, digital recording of it on one CD, this is the reading you ought to own.
Symphony no 9 in D majorby Gustav Mahler Conductor:
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1908-1909; Austria
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Great MahlerSeptember 17, 2013By Mary Lynn H. (San Antonio, TX)See All My Reviews"Haitink's 9th is fabulous. I find myself drawn to Mahler's 7th and 9th lately. I have to hand it Haitink; this even outdoes Bernstein. Great 9th."Report Abuse