Initially I was attracted many years ago by the novelty of Barbirolli conducting the Berlin Phil in Mahler at a time when the conductor was probably more familiar with Mahler's music than the orchestra as a whole. I understand that the conductor gained great respect from the orchestra during these recording sessions and despite their age the sound is very good. As performances these are special readings as one might expect and are another set for the highly recommended list of recordings of this symphony. There is a tendency to remember his celebrated Mahler fifth recording and somehow this special version of the ninth disappears into the background. Karajan and Bernstein recorded powerful versions of this symphony in Berlin but this Barbirolli account from many years earlier joins them on my shelves. Worth discovering.
An Amazon reviewer (above) named Bonzo stated on 27 Mar. 2011: "Which Berlin recording of Mahler 9 to acquire? Either of the Karajans? Bernstein? Abbado? Rattle? They're all great, but this is the one to have." Actually, they are not "all great", as Rattle cannot conduct Mahler. And what was missing from his list was the greatest Mahler 9 of all time conducted by Klemperer on EMI. Barbirolli could be very wilful and laboured and mannered in Mahler. You only need tohave one Mahler 9 and that is the one conducted by Klemperer: only Klemperer can integrate all four movements into one arching organic whole and no one has ever surpassed Klemperer in the colossal first movement. You don't need Barbirolli in Mahler 9; you do need Barbirolli in Delius and Elgar; his sublime interpretation of Elgar's 2nd Symphony on EMI has never been surpassed..
Which Berlin recording of Mahler 9 to acquire? Either of the Karajans? Bernstein? Abbado? Rattle? They're all great, but this is the one to have. It is nearly 50 years since Barbirolli reintroduced the Berliners to Mahler 9. Most of us will not appreciate what a brave move it was for him to ask them to play this in 1963. Mahler was then practically unknown. Compounded to this, he had been banned by the Nazis, and many of the players in the 1963 Berlin Philharmonic would have remembered this. This recording was made a year later at the request of the orchestra. Barbirolli was very much a 'heart on the sleeve' conductor, which made him naturally empathetic to Mahler. The range of emotions evoked throughout the first movement is incredible. If you want to be swept along by the music, this is for you. The central movements have all the elegance, sarcasm and savagery one could wish for. Those who say the final movement is too fast are, I think lacking critical judgement. Bruno Walter worked with Mahler and, in 1938, conducted this movement 4 minutes faster than Barbirolli. Just because Bernstein in his 60s insisted on conducting the slowest performances of just about every adagio does not mean that his take on Mahler should be taken as the final word.
Mahler's 9th Symphony is one of the most poignant ever written by any composer. Mahler, who was in any case not known for bottling up his emotions within his music, was, at this stage of his life well aware of his rapidly failing health. For a composer who had explored the theme of man's mortality plenty of times in previous works, when he has in good health, one can imagine the kind of outpourings that this symphony gives rise to. The highlight of the symphony's scoring is the immaculate fourth and final movement. Mahler returns to a device he used for his 3rd Symphony, which is score the final movement as an adagio. Most composers would want to leave the audience on a high, with a finale that is uplifting, optimistic or rousing. Mahler, in both the 3rd and 9th Symphonies wishes to leave us sombre and reflective! The whole movement flows the way in which Mahler wished his own epitaph to read - beautiful, gentle and yet with more than a tone of self-depracation and even mockery at his own pompousness. For those unfamiliar with Mahler's works, it remains one of the most touching pieces of music ever scored, and the symphony is worth a place in anyone's collection merely on the basis of this. The first three movements really only serve to build up to this climax. Indeed, the third movement is used to introduce one of the main themes of the final movement. The form and melody of the music is fairly typical Mahler. For first-time listeners to his music, probably the 1st or 4th Symphonies remain the most accessible and the 6th the least so. The 9th sits somewhere in between. This is characterised by the opening movement, which starts with a sublime melody, redolent of and every bit as powerful as the well-known adagietto of the 5th. The listener settles down, prepared to be slowly pulled through the movement, but Mahler suddenly agitates the whole mood in the middle section of the movement, until pulling us back in again at its close. The second movement follows, and Mahler does the same thing again to us. This movement starts bright and optimistic, again with a melody that will enchant any listener, only to be disturbed during its course. The third movement is unstinting and uncompromising - this is Mahler at his most direct. The performance on this production is amongst the best you will hear of this symphony. The conductor was no stranger to Mahler's music - at a time when the composer was not as popular as he is now - and Barbirolli is clearly trying to make a point with the way in which he interprets this and other Mahler symphonies. If there can be any complaint at all with this interpretation, it would be that some sections of the final movement are played fractionally faster than on other recordings, which is a shame as it lifts the funerial atmosphere that the composer intended. However, the last few bars, where Mahler, his music and his being, ebb away into eternity, are played so exqisitely by the orchestra, that the above criticism would be churlish in the extreme.
The first British performance of this work was given in the early 1930s by the Halle, under Hamilton Harty, which says an enormous amount for both partners. I was at the Halle's second performance, in the rebuilt Free Trade Hall, in the early 50s under Barbirolli, who later the same year took the work to Edinburgh. The Manchester performance was preceded by a comprehensive guidance lecture by Neville Cardus - the Edinburgh one by Mozart's Linz Symphony, in not too good a performance. One Edinburgh reviewer argued that the Ninth wasn't necessarily spoilt by imprecise playing. He was Cardus, in fact. I don't remember any glaring imprecisions in the Manchester performance, which in any case would have been comprehensively prepared - an earlier Halle Ein Heldenleben at Belle Vue (yes, in the auditorium at the Zoo) had needed fifty rehearsals. But I do remember its tensions - the adagio particularly, in which the string lines almost seemed to etch themselves vividly in the air of the hall. the silence at the close was devastating. When I eventually got this recording ( and I suppose the work had been just as new to the Halle 8 years before) almost nothing of the tension was left. In the early fifties I had heard a Ninth under Kletzki, and the Bruno Walter Das Lied, with Ferrier, and, oddly, a BBC broadcast of the First, by a regional orchestra, but that was it. This live performance was rivetting. It's a pity no surviving recording of Barbirolli's first encounters with the Ninth exists - this one is the work of a almost a different conductor, and a superbly capable band, but you have to dig deep to find an echo of the Manchester performance. The nearest I've got to it since is actually the Vox Horenstein, which was roundly damned by the authors of the Record Guide - certainly not played by a first-line Vienna Philharmonic - which engages with the work's ambiguities and rhetoric in a way Barbirolli didn't in Berlin, but as he had once done.
Sure, Barbirolli wore his heart on his sleeve, but he could also be a very fierce pedant in matters of rhythm and articulation - even to the point of compromising the studio version of the Elgar Cello Concerto with Du Pre in the finale. But in Berlin and Vienna he seems simply to have let the players play and taken pleasure in what he heard. Mahler himself surely wouldn't have done that. Not easy to write this - Barbirolli and the Halle are the foundation of my orchestral listening, and I was very lucky. But it's sad that this is his final word on a work with which he has become identified posthumously. Limited stars for me.