Abbado shines in this great recording. It is tempting to say that this is not monumental and essential Mahler but I believe that is too easy and short sighted a comment. I have been a Mahler 9 fanatic for many years. I discovered it via the great Karajan recordings, both analog and digital but then grew to believe that Leonard Bernstein owned this piece (I'm not at all sure I don't still believe this).
Any lover of the 9th must seek out both the performance by, and documentary, of Bernstein conducting the work with the Vienna Philharmonic in March of 1971. All that said...... so many of the 9ths have issues. Karajan's versions are magnificent but somewhat hard and granite like at times and almost intractable if that makes any sense. Bernstein's four are essential but the NY Phil is a bit lackluster in the 60's and Bernstein did not live the piece like he did a few years later when he filmed it. The film with Vienna, as I mention above, is absolutely essential but the sound leaves something to be desired. The live Bernstein-Berlin is rightly considered timeless and, as some say, perhaps the greatest ever but, among other inconsistencies, the climax of the 4th movement (the entire symphony) is missing its main theme because the entire Trombone section somehow spaced out. The Bernstein-Concertgebouw, somewhat remarkable especially in the 1st movement, is so completely over the top at times that even a fan like myself has to throw up his hands. Haitink, Barbirolli, Walter, Sinopoli, Levine, Barenboim, and others all have their strong points but none of them quite match the intensity of both execution and perspective that Karajan and Bernstein bring to this music. THEN...... along comes this Abbado recording.
It is beautifully played. It is beautifully conducted. Warm, powerful, intense and at turns heartbreakingly gorgeous in the first movement, this reading of Mahler's masterpiece doesn't miss one moment in the score. The 2nd movement is both charming and sardonic when it needs to be and the 3rd is just flawless and as ferocious as Bernstein ever was. This is a man who knows this music like the back of his hand. He also has the respect of this group of musicians, perhaps the greatest orchestra in the world. His earlier performance with the Vienna Philharmonic was fine and well considered but not even close to this in terms of intensity. I have every recording of this piece, have done a two piano reduction of the 1st movement and when people ask me what recording to begin with when discovering the 9th, I always recommend this.
I then go on to say, "once you have Abbado/Berlin, then discover the first ever with Bruno Walter, then Barbirolli, Klemperer, Haitink, and the greats: Karajan and Bernstein. Go buy this. It is essential.