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The Independent Culture
Mahler: Symphony No 9

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Bruno Walter

(Recorded: 1938)

(Dutton Laboratories CDEA 5005)

The 16th of January 1938 was a red-letter day for Western music. Basel saw Bartok premiere his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; New York's Carnegie Hall enjoyed its first-ever true jazz concert (with Benny Goodman and his band, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, etc), while in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, Bruno Walter made an especially poignant live statement of the Ninth Symphony by his one-time friend and mentor Gustav Mahler. Two months later, and Hitler was "spring cleaning" Austria of her Jews, Mahler's music was strictly "verboten", and Bruno Walter was in exile.

And the performance? To call it "white hot" would be an understatement. Walter takes the entire first movement in a single, sweeping gesture; moments of deathly repose alternate with hard-driving climaxes (the penultimate catastrophe remains unrivalled in its power, even to this day); and the score's valedictory "message" rings loud and clear. The second movement has a tipsy lilt, the "Rondo-Burleske" Scherzo a fierceness that mirrors the times, and the Adagio finale a searing intensity that transcends a handful of technical slip-ups. Sound-wise, the quality is nothing short of miraculous - and you certainly won't believe that this greatest of all Mahler Nines was originally issued on 78s. There have been other transfers on LP and CD, but none that are half as good as this.

Hans Knappertsbusch re-invents the charm of Old Vienna for a delightful programme in which warmth, geniality and unforced lyricism combine with bluff humour. True, this Nutcracker Suite sounds just a mite sedate and the Brahms Haydn Variations - although notably affectionate - veer somewhat on the slow side, but where else will you find a more ceremonious Academic Festival Overture, or an Invitation to the Dance (Berlioz's orchestration) that opens with such disarming tenderness?

The entire first disc is given over to Viennese light classics, where Ziehrer's Wiener Burger and Komzak's Bad'ner Mad'ln tease the bar-line with an inimitably vivid "Viennese lilt" and a stylish zither solo lends extra atmosphere to Tales from the Vienna Woods. There's Radetzky, Tritsch- Tratsch and Leichtes Blut, while Knappertsbusch makes rumbustious music of Schubert's first Marche militaire (in Weninger's rowdy orchestration) and opens the curtain on Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor with a masterful sense of theatre.

The playing has an unforced elegance that contrasts markedly with the acid attack and feverish intensity of Bruno Walter's Mahler (see above). Decca's early stereo recordings were hardly ground-breaking for their day (RCA's of three years earlier are infinitely superior), but the transfers pass muster and the performances are bound to raise a smile.

Radetzky and other orchestral favourites

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Hans Knappertsbusch

(Recorded: 1957-1960)

(Decca 440 624-2, two discs)