I was up late last night, listening to the new recording on EMI of Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic performing Gustav Mahler’s great, heart-rending Ninth Symphony. I have to say that it just might be the best modern recording of any work by any orchestra.
[I should note that the cellist Alban Gerhardt attended live performances of the Ninth in Berlin and declared the performance “one of the greatest performances that I’ve ever heard in my life”.]
I am, first of all, left in awe of the virtuosity of the great Berlin Philharmonic. They seemingly have no constraints on volume – either highs or lows – and an infinite variation in between. The balances in the two inner movements, which can easily turn into a mush of conflicting lines, are exquisite and the interplay of lines, especially in the massive fugue in the third movement, is crystal clear and spot on.
Listening to this recording was, for me, like hearing a great performance – the orchestra lives and breathes in this account of the symphony, especially in the great valedictory last movement, which seemingly lasts forever as it alternately rages and evaporates. The great Berlin string section creates floods of sound, by turns intense and delicate, with surging up-beat portamenti that I have never before heard like in this recording – it simply makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. The pacing of this final movement is just right – with the dÃ©nouement from the great final climax to the final expiration of the symphony’s last breaths in the violas occurring inexorably and organically.
As a listener, I’ve found that I really have to listen to Mahler’s Ninth in the dark, late a night. It’s almost too fragile to submit to the light of day, as if the sun’s rays might cause it to disintegrate before our eyes. But in the dark, as with our imagination, the symphony’s details magnify and multiply themselves, becoming living, breathing things. And what is this symphony but a last, long, fitful journey into Night.
You can download the recording from iTunes here.