C1817. HERBERT von KARAJAN Cond. Berlin Phil.: Symphony #9 in D (Mahler). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1071, Live Performance, 27 Aug., 1982, Salzburg. [An unforgettable performance, not to be missed!] Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“In the postwar era the Berlin Philharmonic essentially abandoned its Mahler heritage, which went back as far as the Twenties when Furtwängler had an inclination to conduct Mahler’s symphonies, an inclination that did not outlive the Nazi ban on the music. Although he was Austrian and spent formative years in Vienna, Karajan showed only a very late interest in Mahler. Once he came around - we don’t know how stubbornly or with what recalcitrance - he recorded the Ninth Symphony twice for DG, in analog and digital sound. Both were highly acclaimed award winners, but he said that the Ninth was so cathartic that he couldn’t return to it.
Now St. Laurent Studio has followed up their release of a live Mahler Fourth and Sixth with this in-concert Ninth from Salzburg in August, 1982. Let me answer the most pressing question first: this is a great performance, and for several reasons collectors might prefer it to either of its predecessors on DG. Speaking generally, the recorded sound is very good analog FM stereo, presumably from Austrian Radio sources, showing signs of tape hiss that I found intrusive only in pianissimo passages, such as the very opening bars, when the muted French horn announces the broken rhythm that some consider the sound of Mahler’s failing heartbeat. The engineers capture the Berlin Philharmonic in both broad sweeps and inner detail.
Karajan’s digital recording, generally considered the better interpretation, dates from September 30, 1982 (a month after the present concert) from the Berlin Festival; it was recorded in the sonically problematic Philharmonie. The best sound is found on DG’s Karajan Gold series, and in fact there is no early-digital glare or hardness. But on my audio system the sound from Salzburg is considerably more open and spacious. The result is more presence and a greater sense of aliveness in the music.
One immediately notices an extra intensity and urgency in the playing, too. In Karajan’s best Mahler - and I’d count this reading among his very best - he favors a beautiful orchestral surface, but within this aesthetic he finds real depth and feeling. No one has ever accused either DG Ninth of lacking feeling, not to mention virtuosic excitement. But everything glows brighter in Salzburg.
I realize that not everyone is sold on Karajan as a Mahler conductor, founded on a mixture of political, personal, and musical reasons. Strong antipathy has been voiced by previous FANFARE reviewers. Unless you have a fixed opinion, however, this Ninth isn’t shy about proclaiming its greatness. The second-movement Ländler are polished rather than rustic, it must be said, but in that style they are gorgeously done, and the dance rhythm never goes slack. The Rondo-Burleske is thrillingly played, and Karajan captures the brash sardonic interjections that Mahler intended. His control over the orchestra can’t be equated with excessive smoothness here.
A Mahler Ninth performance isn’t great without the Adagio finale delivering tragedy that is transcended by a sense of grace. Understandably the music invites some conductors to slow down, lean in, and milk the mood for pathos. Karajan, without being mild-mannered, can afford to let the legendary Berlin strings, the greatest section in his orchestra, carry the music on a seemingly endless flow of intense beauty. By comparison the brass aren’t as insistent as under Bernstein or Tennstedt. But Mahler’s great Adagios are string-based, and the balance here is perfection. The orchestra’s control in the closing pp and ppp passages is inimitable.
It seems ironic that the Berlin Philharmonic, after abandoning Mahler for so long, has recorded the Ninth Symphony at the highest artistic level three times under Karajan, twice under Abbado, and once each under Barbirolli, Bernstein, and Rattle. If I had to pick only a single great recording, it would be a tie between Bernstein and this new Karajan. It is a thrilling and moving listening experience.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE