Battle of the Multichannel Mahler Ninths! Chailly vs. Tilson Thomas!

by | Jun 1, 2005 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 – Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly – Decca multichannel SACD (2 discs) 4756191, 89:56 ****:

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 – San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas –
San Francisco Symphony multichannel SACD (2 discs) 821936-0007-2, 89:27

If you don’t want to read the rest of this just look at the number of
stars above; but you really can’t go wrong with either Ninth. 
They are actually rather similar in performance style and sonics. Both
conductors bring out clean details in the dense score without missing
out on the grand overall scheme. They are both successful at
maintaining the slow tempi often called for without bogging down
overmuch in the painful confrontation with mortality which is a Mahler
characteristic, but more so in the Ninth than any other of his

Going to a strictly instrumental symphony after the hodgepodge of the
vocal-choral-instrumental Eighth (though a successful hodgepodge),
Mahler must have had in mind the final symphonic statements of several
preceding composers. But at the same time he was already planning his
Tenth, which he failed to live to complete.  The half-hour-long
initial movement is a symphony in itself and was described by one
authority as “an exhausting depiction of catastrophe.”  Mahler had
never before strung out his special ability to create a new world of
sound out of just a few themes as he did in this first movement of the
Ninth. He follows it with “something completely different,” as the
Pythons would say. The sequence of waltzes and ländlers, which
alternate between the charming and heavy-footed parody, are almost a
cousin in intent to Ravel’s later La Valse. The third movement
Rondo-Burleske would normally be a light-hearted and melodic respite
from the doom and gloom, but Mahler crams it with obsessive recurring
counterpoint that may show his veneration of J.S. Bach but is closer to
a Bachian nightmare. The closing, nearly half-hour-length Adagio takes
a lovely theme through an endless series of imaginative
variations.  The elegiac mood of the movement seems to represent
an acceptance of and resignation to death.

Chailly has been committing to disc the nine Mahler symphonies over a
15-year period and this is his last.  In the first decade of the
20th century Mahler himself conducted his music in Amsterdam. I
envision the composer would be reduced to tears if he could hear the
extent to which both of these new surround sound recordings immerse a
listener (although second-hand) in his epic symphonic
soul-search.  The surround channels on both do a good job of
recreating the feeling of being in the concert hall. With its
reputation as perhaps the world’s best concert hall, one would think
the Concertgebouw recording would win hands down, but I would say it’s
a draw. Perhaps I’m prejudiced by being completely familiar with SF’s
Davies Hall but never have heard a concert in the Concertgebouw.

[With most symphonic SACDs having only the hall reverberation on the
surround channels, it is vitally important to have a properly-adjusted
balance between them and the frontal channels – even to changing the
levels depending on the particular recording.  Some multichannel
SACDs have such a subtle signal on the surrounds that one wonders if it
isn’t just an artificial L-R and/or reverb effect created from the
front channels. I discovered that I had the rear-facing tweeters on my
surround Von Schwiekert VR-2s turned down too far.  Raising their
levels created a considerably more realistic surround field as there is
as much space in the room behind them as in front of them.]

The Concertgebouw string section is a bit richer sounding than the San
Francisco forces, but I found that Tilson Thomas points up more of the
angst and obsessiveness in Mahler’s music. His accent on the dramatic
echoes the approach of his former mentor Leonard Bernstein but never
goes over the top as did Bernstein occasionally. The SF recording was
also made live during a public performance and I couldn’t find any
indication that the same was true of the Chailly recording. This fact
may have aided the added excitement generated by the MTT version. 
But, regardless, the release of two competing multichannel recordings
of such high quality in both performance and sound demonstrates that
the  promise of the SACD format is being delivered without

– John Sunier

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