Benjamin Zander’s detailed immersion in both the letter and the spirit of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony yielded a generally excellent live recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Telarc, 4/99), now out of print. None of Zander’s subsequent Philharmonia Mahler recordings lived up to that Ninth’s promise but this 2018 live remake with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra recaptures the Philharmonia recording’s salient qualities, and with superior engineering to boot. Zander carefully organises the first movement’s intricate contrapuntal strands and minutely scaled dynamic indications to the point where the climaxes shatter without becoming diffuse. Mahler’s signature stopped-horns passages are characterised with colourful versatility, as are the hushed string conversations at around 16 minutes into the movement. Granted, you don’t get Bernstein’s volatility or the impeccable sectional alignment and upward sweep of Alan Gilbert’s stunning Stockholm recording, yet Zander clearly knows what he wants to bring out.
He begins the second movement’s first Ländler theme deliberately, then picks up the pace at bar 10 (it takes a few seconds for the musicians to adjust and lock in), and keeps listeners in suspense by the way he calibrates the soft dynamics. By contrast, the ‘drunken waltz’ episodes are convivial rather than fierce, lacking the sardonic cutting edge associated with Ančerl and Chailly. Similar observations apply to the ‘Rondo-Burleske’. The clarity of instrumental detail often beggars belief, yet one misses the nimble ensemble attacks and releases that distinguish Karajan’s live Berlin version or the coda’s cataclysmic power in the first and finer of the late Michael Gielen’s two recordings.
Zander and his Boston musicians find their expressive centre with their touchingly controlled finale. Listen to the string section’s pinpoint unanimity of phrasing and timbre throughout, and you’ll easily mistake these young musicians for seasoned veterans. Given that Mahler’s Ninth is one of the luckiest symphonies in terms of reference versions, Zander inevitably faces stiff competition, yet the outer movements alone are worth the price of admission and the attention of anyone who loves this extraordinary work.
Click here to listen to Mahler’s Symphony no. 9.