Abbado, von Karajan, Rattle via Duggan

by Glenn on February 24, 2015

I’ve listened to a particular recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony several times over the last couple of weeks. It’s a recording made in September of 1999 by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Cover art of the Mahler 9 recording by Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic.

For whatever reason, I have felt drawn to this music lately and in quiet moments particular strains of the heartbreakingly beautiful final movement are in my head.

This is a powerful performance. The Berliner Philharmoniker (I’ll use their actual German name this time and embrace pretension) play unbelievably well.

It’s a live recording, which can often mean it’s a “live” recording.

At some point market forces made an impact on the recording of classical music. It’s a story I’m not sufficiently informed to tell at this point, but on one side of an equation the actual recording process became ridiculously expensive. (The fact that Mahler’s music requires a big band certainly doesn’t help.)

On the other side of the equation, either people purchased fewer recordings and/or there were fewer people purchasing recordings. Greater costs and reduced sales mean you either stop making recordings or figure out ways to reduce your costs.

The live recording (live without quotations) is one way to balance this equation. You take the opportunity of a performance to say, Hey, we’re already playing the thing, let’s set up some microphones. An additional benefit of a live recording is the energy that comes from performing in front of an audience.

Two problems. First, that audience. We cough and fidget and clear our throats at inopportune moments and whisper to each other and applaud when we’re not supposed to. In short, we are noisy. Second, the orchestra. They aren’t perfect. And while a flubbed note here and there won’t necessarily ruin a performance, they are hard to accept on a recording.

Which brings us to live and “live” recordings. It has, I think, become commonplace to record music live and then have a “patch” session to fix any bits of audience disturbance or orchestral imperfections. Recordings labeled as live may or may not have been recorded completely live. Ergo the quotation marks for many live recordings.

According to one reviewer, the source material for this CD, though, comes “from two concert performances at the Berlin Festival in September 1999.” So, two live concerts were used to create this recording. (I might have detected a splice at 2’53” in the fourth movement, but otherwise it feels like one performance.)

The reason I own this recording is because of the aforementioned reviewer, the late Tony Duggan. If you want to understand the music of Gustav Mahler, especially the recorded performances of music by Gustav Mahler, Mr. Duggan is an indispensable source. Duggan is a self-described enthusiast for recordings, including those of Gustav Mahler. He once wrote (source here),

“The only musical instrument I play is the gramophone and if I were to burst into song I would clear three blocks. In never having learned any other instrument I believe there is positive virtue to be derived from this in communicating enthusiasm to those who may be newcomers, as well as to those who are not-so-newcomers, in classical music. In reviewing recordings I believe something of the experience of listening ought to be communicated to the reader by writing that should be enjoyable of itself. Whether I have ever succeeded in this laudable aim I leave others to judge.”

Among the things I appreciate about Duggan is his ability to listen deeply and well and convey what he is hearing. In comparing this recording to an earlier recording Abbado made with the Vienna Philharmonic (article found here), he notes,

“The engineers in the Philharmonie in Berlin are less sure of themselves than their predecessors were in Vienna’s Musikverein. The Berlin acoustic is very different too: less warm, more analytical, though not entirely lacking in atmosphere. The result this time brings some quirks of balance, most especially in the first movement where there is highlighting of solo instruments – harp and cor anglais especially – and what appears to be some “limiting” at climaxes where clinching fortissimos shy away a little where they should punch home. So this is a much more manipulated sound picture all through. Overall it’s a close-in balance and the feeling is that you are sitting in the stalls quite close to the platform. Yet, as the performance went on, I found that I came to value this sound picture as so much of Mahler’s inner detail is plain for all to hear with enough air behind the instruments to give perspective. So I found this sound balance surprisingly good for home listening with the caveats mentioned.”

I consider Duggan both required and inspired reading as I attempt to become a better listener. His surveys of the recordings of Mahler’s music may be found here.

Duggan is opinionated about what he likes and doesn’t like in Mahler recordings. You may not agree with his conclusions, but his descriptions of the music seem spot on to me. He is like the master chef who tells you whether or not there should be more salt. Whether your palate agrees with his is another story, but there’s no question that you understand his taste.

Duggan has a sense of humor, too. Near the end of his survey of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony he makes some comments about a recording by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Then he tosses this in (source found here):

“Mentioning Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic reminds me that I am sure I will again receive e-mails pointing out that I have not mentioned the DG [Deutsche Grammophone] recording of this work by Herbert Von Karajan. Well now I have mentioned it and so I will pass on to Giuseppe Sinopoli’s version also on DG.”

Oh so dry. Obviously, Duggan’s not an HvK fan. Not everyone is. Someone once criticized von Karajan’s approach to music making with the stinger, “… listening to Karajan’s Beethoven is like watching a gleaming pink cadillac about to run over a defenseless baby. One doesn’t know whether to admire the car or be aghast at the situation.”

Sir Simon Rattle has some insightful (honest, but more measured and kind) comments about von Karajan.

Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, and Sir Simon Rattle have each recorded Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. Duggan thought the Simon Rattle version might have been the best. See review here. That latter recording is in my desert island collection.