Mahler Symphony No. 9. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, John Barbirolli
Recorded 10, 11, 14, 18 January 1964, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
EMI Studio CDM 7 63115 2 (1989), barcode 077776311524:
HMV Classics 5 74364 2 (2001?), barcode 724357436427:
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 5 67925 2 (2002), barcode 724356792524:
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 5 67926 2 (2002), barcode 724356792623:
EMI Masters 9 18725 2 (2011), barcode 5099991872524 (2002 remastering):
EMI Masters 6 78292 2 (2012), barcode 5099967829224 (2002 remastering):
EMI Toshiba Grandmaster Series TOCE-3039 (HS-2088) (1995), 4988006712638:
EMI Toshiba “Art Series” TOCE-59019 (2001), 4988006792548:
EMI Toshiba TOCE-1383 (2006), 4988006849334:
HQCD EMI Toshiba “EMI Classic Best 100 Premium HQCD” TOCE-91071 (2010), 4988006881211:
SACD EMI Toshiba TOGE-12011 (2011), 4988006887831:
Warner Classics Japan “Classic Masters” WPCS-23019 (2014), 4943674171514:
SACD Warner Music Japan WPGS-50102 (2014 or 2016?), barcode 4943674173495:
A great version let down by a relative lack of instrumental pungency
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 18 November 2011
When this version first came out in 1964, it was enthusiastically greeted by the critics and welcomed among the very best – a list that by general consensus included then only Bruno Walter’s two versions (live in 1938, and stereo in 1961 – links will open new tabs to my reviews) and Jascha Horenstein’s mono recording made for Vox in 1952, and was subsequently completed, before the 1970s, by Bernstein (rec. 1965, not released until October 1967 in the Columbia set collecting his complete traversal of the symphonies, 14 LPs GMS 765), Klemperer (EMI), Kubelik (DG) and Solti (Decca/London, with the London Symphony Orchestra), all in 1967, and Haitink in 69 (those I don’t include reflect not my personal opinion, but the general critical consensus of the time as I perceive it).
Hearing it again, after some years and now more comparative listening, I agree, despite some reservations. EMI producer Walter Legge’s staunch support of Klemperer was a great thing of course, since it resulted in a number of landmark recordings and best-sellers from EMI’s catalog, but the downside was that it more or less pushed Barbirolli out, at least from the repertoire tackled by Klemperer. It didn’t help that the two conductors had much in common, especially a taste for the deliberate and massive. So the complete Beethoven symphonies with the Philharmonia were given to Klemperer and Barbirolli never got to record the complete cycle, Klemperer did the Bruckners (4 to 9) and the Mahlers (2, 4, 7, 9 and Das Lied), with Barbirolli confined to 5, 6 and 9, and the song cycles with Janet Baker. Yet, where Klemperer was ONLY, in his late years, deliberation and massiveness, Barbirolli could also develop white-heat passion when he wanted. It is an irretrievable loss that EMI hasn’t documented it more, outside of Brahms and the English repertoire.
The most notable feature of Barbirolli’s interpretation of the first movement is the strong contrasts of tempo, in a way that one would more readily associate with Leonard Bernstein. That’s in striking contrast to the “old man’s” approach exemplified by the 85-year-old Bruno Walter four years earlier (see link above) or 81-year-old Klemperer three years later (link above). Barbirolli starts quite deliberately and with a feeling of warmth, but soon exercises an un-prescribed acceleration leading up to the next climax, for the sake of dramatic effect (2:08 to 3:07, measures 29-47). Passion and intensity are clearly set forth as the expressive hallmarks of Barbirolli’s interpretation, and from there it doesn’t abate. When comes the second section, “etwas frischer” (somewhat crisper) at 5:05, Barbirolli’s markedly swifter tempo feels natural, and leads to a very brisk allegro at 5:56 (measure 102), only to be followed by an almost dragging pace in the ensuing slow section (6:06 and after, Tempo I subito) despite Mahler’s indication “aber nicht schleppen” (but do not drag). But there is much atmosphere in the whispering, tremulating passage starting at 7:56 (measure 137), and even more so upon its ponderously funeral return at 14:14 (measure 254: “schattenhaft/shadowy” is Mahler’s indication here). So you can sure expect Barbirolli’s “mit Wut” (10:08, measure 174) to be plenty furious, his “leidenschaftlich” (11:29 measure 211) to be full of passion, his “etwas fliessender” (16:03 measure 279) to let again a surge of passion flow. And conversely it doesn’t fail that “sich mässigend” (more measured, 12:44, measure 237), or “einhaltend” (holding back, 17:35, measure 315) give him cues to slam the breaks, and the “schon langsam” (now slow, 12:53, measure 239) or “gehalten” (“held back”, 17:53 measure 321), to return to an ominous and highly atmospheric mood of standstill. The movement ends, “schon ganz langsam” (23:30 measure 406) in beautifully appeased atmosphere.
All this is great, but Barbirolli’s recording also suffers from a certain lack of instrumental pungency and snap, where other conductors (and listeners) revel in giving full weight and snarling colors to Mahler’s myriad details of dynamics, articulation and phrasing. Try for instance the horns, trumpets and trombones in the passage starting at 6:18 (measure 112), sounding here unduly tame. In general the horns especially are so subdued and so often covered by the strings that sometimes it is a matter of guess rather than hearing that they are there at all. The movement’s great crashes are so subdued as to make me feel let down (especially at 11:06 measure 202, the second one at 17:30 measure 314 fares better, especially if you can turn up the volume real high). Despite some felicitous details (as the despondently tolling horns with their semi-tone drooping during the “schattenhaft” passage at 14:26, measure 256, or, in general and in all four movements, the fact that Barbirolli was the first I think to really play Mahler’s portamento indications at full slide, not only those written for the strings but also the woodwinds), this is not a version that spotlights Mahler’s myriad instrumental details (reminding me of the unjustly neglected Leopold Ludwig on Everest, the first stereo version, from 1959), and I can’t tell if it was Barbirolli’s doing or the recording team’s. Bruno Walter four years earlier was offered by Columbia much more pungent sonics. At any rate, something is amiss to give the music its full impact. Not that it is important, but the first horn of the Berlin Philharmonic forgets to trill at 22:25 measure 389, and a violin enters a beat too soon at 4:35 (measure 71).
Not that the “2002 remastering” improves anything either. I’ve bought it (on its EMI Masters 9 18725 2 reissue from 2011 – it was cheap) to compare it to the version I already had, EMI’s previous CD release on their Studio mid-price line from 1989. Remastering? It must be a farce. I hear no sonic difference whatsoever, at least not on my admittedly basic sound system: in fact, I’ve ripped both CDs on my computer and used my Sennheiser headphones – sound’s good enough for me, and downstairs neighbours don’t come banging with their broomstick on the ceiling. When you are really trying hard to hear differences, you do, and I thought I had spotted maybe a breadth, a whisper’s more presence in the remastering – when I realized that I had inadvertently confused both recordings, and it was in fact the older remastering that I thought had this iota’s more presence. But if any difference in favor of one or another, it is no more than a iota. It is also something I remarked in the 2007 remastering of Klemperer’s Mahler 9th (see link above), making me wonder if all this remastering gig was no more than a scam from EMI just to suck a few more bucks out of us. And it is not the excellent liner notes by Michael Kennedy for the new issue (with anecdotes on Barbirolli’s Mahlerian collaborations with the Berlin Philharmonic) that will make much of a difference. So unless you have a high-end sound system that would enable you to hear improvements that eluded me, if you have the Studio version, you don’t need to replace it, and if you are just considering purchasing Barbirolli’s recording, go to the cheapest.
In the Ländler Barbirolli adopts an approach that is at first very similar to Bernstein’s a year later (Bernstein’s first complete Mahler cycle must now be heard in the recent and truly revelatory Carnegie Hall remastering) and one that again is in contrast with Horenstein’s or Walter’s (to say nothing of Klemperer’s). It starts with a more animated opening tempo, exuding less a feeling of good-humored and pedestrian bonhomie and more one of untarnished playfulness and merriment. Then comes a Tempo II (2:24) with plenty of vigor and drive but not rushed (and Mahler does write “POCO più mosso”), thus allowing for the requisite contrast to be established with the Tempo III (4:53, notated “very slow”). But here, Barbirolli diverges from Bernstein by keeping it quite flowing – too much so to fully convey its mock sentimental charm (and the horn’s entry which heralds the section would have called for a retake; here it is awkwardly not in-sync with the violins, and likewise the oboe’s and violins’ grace notes on the “molto rit.” at 5:15, measure 229). And then, due to that relatively brisk Tempo III, Barbirolli doesn’t quite establish the contrast with Tempo I when it returns at 8:56 (measure 369); Walter ran into similar problems but for opposite reasons – a slow tempo I. Bernstein’s slower Tempo III allowed him to better observe these tempo relationships. Within that framework, Barbirolli is sufficiently observant of Mahler’s many tempo changes, although his “rit.” are hardly perceptible, and he really waits for the ensuing “molto rit.” to hold back (there are a number of such occasions as the movement unfolds). I also prefer Bernstein’s hectic acceleration at (Barbirolli’s) 11:34 (measure 497), although Barbirolli’s more reined-in approach probably conforms better to Mahler’s “allmählich etwas eilend doch nie überhetzt” (progressively somewhat hurried though never hectic). But Barbirolli is more consistent than Bernstein at the return of the Tempo I for the coda (12:02, measure 523).
Also, and unfortunately, although the Berlin musicians seem to be having lots of fun and offer some felicitously humorous phrasings, the relative lack of instrumental pungency, the slightly rounded and softened edges of woodwinds and brass, their lack of crudeness and shrillness – yes, it must have been against the nature of these musicians honed by Karajan – rob the orchestra here again of some of the desired sauciness (“täppisch”, “keck”, all these indications mean the same). But this it is something you are likely to notice only on careful comparative listening. Until the Carnegie remastering, Bernstein was also less than ideal in that respect, but because of somewhat dulled sonics rather than over-civilized playing; other than horns that remain regrettably covered and loose their sauciness, the recent remastering has set that right; Walter and Klemperer are great, all considerations of tempo notwithstanding. Barbirolli’s Rondo-Burleske is rather deliberate but, despite again a slight loss of punch due to some instrumental softened edges (mainly in the first section), it is immensely powerful, even brutal (through sheer punch, not scrappy ensemble or individual instrumental delivery), and suitably nasty-sounding. And that Barbirolli chose to hold back the tempo at 1:56 where Mahler instructs precisely to remain at the same tempo (measure 109) is of little importance (the original Gramophone reviewer suggested that it might have been the effect of an edit and the use of another take rather than of any interpretive option of Barbirolli). The middle section is strongly contrasted, disciplined in tempo (unlike Bernstein’s) and intensely lyrical. For the anecdote, you can hear in some spots that Barbirolli was one of those groaning conductors.
As it should be, the finale is the high point of the recording. Taken at a very deliberate opening tempo (though not quite at the extremes of, later, in 1979, Levine), it develops a scorching, almost unbearable passionate intensity – and here, EMI has managed to give the solo horn the presence, impact and potency it needs. The strings play with tremendous intensity, and each accent notated by Mahler gets its full weight, equalled perhaps only by the strings… of the same orchestra, playing it live, fifteen years later, under Bernstein. Although it seems to contradict Mahler’s indication to play “still (or always very held back”, “stets sehr gehalten”, I also love the way Barbirolli doesn’t drag the tempo in the desolate, harp-accompanied section between 12:14 and 13:48 , as others have (Horenstein for instance): rather than underlying an abstract time-suspended atmosphere, here it conveys (to me) a sense of acceptance of the passing of things, as if the “narrator” just looked at the world flow by, in an already detached spirit. I find it immensely moving. Then the strings erupt at full blast (“fliessender doch durchaus nicht eilend”, flowing but throughout not rushed) in a burst of passion (and Barbirolli plays the whole passage with tremendous passion), as in a sudden attempt to clinch again at the things of the world. I can’t really say that any of the great versions of that finale is better than an other, because when I listen to any – from Walter in 1938 , to Bernstein (live with the Berlin Philharmonic, his only collaboration with Karajan’s orchestra) and Levine both in 1979, not precluding any of the later versions that I haven’t yet heard – I think it that one is the ultimate. But listening to Barbirolli’s finale I think no one can ever better it.
I approached listening again to this recording with an unfavorable bias. I had lukewarm memories of it, from years back (maybe influenced by my lukewarm response to Barbirolli’s famed 5th Symphony – but that’s another review). My memories were wrong. But, despite the outstanding Finale, the recording doesn’t reach top-of-the-pile in view of the Berliners’ relative lack of sonic pungency, the brass too often dulled, and the reservations I have about Barbirolli’s Ländler.
Audiophiles, take note: the Japanese label Grand Slam has released a (presumably) pirate CD edition, GS-2182 (2018) barcode 4909346309081, transferred from a 2-track reel-to-reel tape 15 ips: