A few old-school Mahler’s 9th recordings

I’m pleased to welcome as my first guest blogger Jeffrey Work, principal trumpet of the Oregon Symphony. He, among other things, is an enthusiastic collector of old recordings, and as such, I thought that he might like to delve into his massive collection and give us some nuggets that relate to the upcoming work on the next classical series: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Enjoy! — CN

As the Oregon Symphony’s musicians prepare for our upcoming performances of the Mahler 9th, most of us will head to our record and CD libraries. It’s a common first step before we go to the more important second step: heading to the practice room. My routine is no different.

For a trumpeter, the challenges and rewards of playing Gustav Mahler’s music stand out as a highlight of any season which includes it. My first exposure came in the 1981 All-Virginia Orchestra, playing the final movement of Mahler’s monumental (and trumpet-filled) 1st Symphony and I’ve loved Mahler ever since.

During that weekend-long festival, a friend and mentor told me to look for Bruno Walter’s recordings of Mahler whenever possible, since Walter and Mahler had been colleagues and friends. I’ve been doing that ever since, as well. So, the first Mahler 9th to come off of my shelf was one of Walter’s two recordings.

The other Mahler 9th recordings which similarly strike me as being filled with tradition and spirit were made by Jascha Horenstein in the mid-fifties and Benjamin Zander comparatively recently.

I won’t presume to pick a favorite among these, but rather, I’d like to just say a few things about each which may be of interest. The first of Walter’s recordings features a concert performance with the Vienna Philharmonic given on Jan. 16, 1938. Much has been written about this, the first commercial recording of the work. Suffice to say, Walter and his Viennese colleagues would not see one another again until after the world events then unfolding had run their course.

The playing, some would say, reflected the circumstances. Whatever the case, it is filled with extraordinary passion and, even through the antiquated sound quality, one can hear stunning examples of the “Mahler sound” in all its violence and in all its intimacy. Perhaps, the choice of this symphony, above some of Mahler’s more triumphant works was the only music appropriate to the occasion.

Jascha Horenstein’s 1954 account on Vox also belongs on a list of the classic recordings of Mahler’s final completed symphony. I mention it here because it affords us the opportunity to hear the work in another authentic interpretation with a Viennese orchestra, the Vienna Symphony.

The playing under Horenstein brings out the rustic elements in Mahler’s music particularly well and the recorded sound is quite clean for its vintage. Like Walter’s earlier effort, Horenstein’s has that certain, hard to define quality which sounds natural and spontaneous–and steeped in the Mahler performance tradition.

If you prefer higher fidelity, two recordings come to mind, each with an added bonus.

Bruno Walter, who had given Mahler 9 its premiere shortly after the composer’s death, re-recorded the symphony in early 1961, one year before his own passing. It’s a beautiful performance, full of warmhearted reverence for his friend who had died half a century earlier.

Originally on Columbia and now on Sony, this disc comes with an extra side labeled “A Working Portrait.” Narrated by the recording’s producer, John McClure, we hear excerpts of Walter’s rehearsals, which immediately preceded the actual “takes” during the recording sessions.

The Columbia Symphony Orchestra (a hand-picked orchestra of mostly Los Angeles area players) didn’t play concerts, so the routine in the sessions was to work on a segment of the music while the engineers made their preparations and then go straight into recording. These 21 minutes form an interesting document which any Mahler devotee should hear.

Finally, I want to mention a Mahler 9th (and a whole series of Mahler discs) which my friend Benjamin Zander has undertaken.

Zander conducts a group called the Boston Philharmonic, never to be confused with the Boston Symphony, and I had the great good fortune of playing all of Mahler’s symphonies under his direction. He has devoted much of his life to the cause of Mahler and the recorded results show his true understanding of Mahler’s life, Mahler’s music, and that true “Mahler sound” which I mentioned earlier.

The great thing about this series of recordings (on Telarc with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra) is their inclusion of a lecture CD with each, a complete discussion of the work, movement by movement. Zander brings us into Mahler’s world, and the world which each individual symphony truly is, with great passion and insight. If you’re new to Mahler, or new to a specific symphony, these discs are a great place to begin.

With all of this said, I’d add only one thing… The best recording of any symphony, of course, isn’t a recording at all. To experience a work like Mahler’s 9th with fellow concertgoers and a stage full of living, breathing musicians can be a life changing moment, one I hope you’ll share with us next week.

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