For comparison: Mahler 9 Chamber Version | Camerata RCO | Gustavo Gimeno

by Glenn on May 5, 2015

A few weeks ago, I listened to a new chamber arrangement of Mahler’s 9th Symphony as performed by Joolz Gale and ensemble mini. (See post here.) I’ve noticed that when I listen to a recording of a piece of classical music for the first time, I am heavily influenced by that first experience—those particular artists and that particular interpretation—so that when I hear the piece again performed by different artists I often find myself preferring the first. There is a kind of primacy of interpretation.

It happened again. When I saw this other recording of the Klaus Simon arrangement of the M9 I knew I wanted to hear how it would compare. It arrived and now that I’ve heard it, I’m in a quandry wondering which is “better.”

There’s nothing wrong with this performance. The players in Camerata RCO are virtuosic. They are phenomenal. That is the thing that best recommends this performance.

But, based on memory of that other recording, I think I actually prefer the ensemble mini performance. This Camerata RCO recording has three things I do not like as compared to ensemble mini. I acknowledge these could be the things that would make me prefer this performance had I heard it first.

1. The 2nd movement is remarkably precise, but feels a little mechanistic in comparison. My thought is that ensemble mini had a little more give and take to the tempo. I liked the feeling of a relaxed and rustic country dance that gets a little out of kelter when the tempo changes and the first tune doesn’t work with the second tempo. I guess the ensemble mini performance had more of a tongue in cheek quality to it. In this performance, it feels like a pure music impulse nearly “citifies” what should have more of a rustic quality.

2. I think the sound atmospherics change over the course of the recording. I hope I’m not imagining this, but after you’ve listened to the first two movements on the first CD, when you switch to the second CD, the sound becomes noticeably brighter—shrill even. Sometimes there is a sense of space to the recording and other times it becomes incredibly dry, for example with 4′ left in the last movement the size of the room feels like it has changed from a concert space to a small bedroom. Moreover, different instruments have different acoustical treatments. The horn always has plenty of reverb. I found myself trying to make sense of the what I was hearing. How is it that different instruments are all playing together but don’t sound like they are all playing in the same acoustical space?

3. Just a preference, but I think I like the balance and blend of ensemble mini. This is really where the a priori had an advantage. Had I heard this recording first, I might have found ensemble mini too bland. The horn, in particular, on this Camerata RCO performance feels like it overwhelms the other instruments at times.

It will be fun to come back to both of these recordings in the future and check my first impressions. I’ll let some time go by and then, perhaps, listen to this performance first. It occurs to me that beyond the matter of an interpretive preference in the second movement, my preference for ensemble mini’s recording could be because of the actual recording of the performance and not the performance itself.

One thing this recording confirms is that I really like this chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Ninth, which is beautiful and makes unreal demands on the performers. Camerata RCO was certainly up to the challenge of a reduced orchestra with corresponding increased demands on the players.