Mahler: Symphony No. 9–Herbert Blomstedt/Bamberger Symphoniker

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How does a medieval Bavarian town of 70,000 have an orchestra this good?

It doesn’t hurt that one of the great maestros, Herbert Blomstedt (92 this month) is on the podium. Blomstedt is the Honorary Conductor of the Bamberger Symphoniker. For the past few years, Blomstedt has been busy conducting in Berlin, Dresden, a few miles south of Bamberg in Munich, and other major musical centres. So, good for Bamberg that they keep enticing the great man back to what is a provincial German town.

The orchestra, formed shortly after the war in 1946, was originally made up of Czech expatriates. Many believe Bohemian style cultivates a unique sound to this day. I’m not sure about that. The players sound to me of international standard and must be living an idyllic life in a beautiful Bavarian town where they make music and teach. Nice, if you can get it.

Bamberger Symphoniker

Bamberger Symphoniker

Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, the greatest and most musically complex of his 9 symphonies (11, if you count Das Lied and the unfinished 10th Symphony), is no stranger to the Bamberger Symphoniker. In fact, music director from 2000-2016, the flamboyant Brit Jonathan Nott recorded all the Mahler symphonies with Bamberg on the Tudor label. I’ve not heard his 9th, but it received positive notices. I’m not sure if Blomstedt, famous for his Nielsen and Bruckner, has recorded the 9th before or any other Mahler symphony.

No matter, he takes to Mahler like a duck to water. It’s a wonderful 9th—beautifully played and recorded by BR Klassik. Ah, to live in Germany with a jewel like BR Klassik (the best classical radio station in the world), where they record their home orchestras beautifully and the Bavarian Government supports many professional orchestras and forgives their debts. Maybe this answers my opening question?

Blomstedt adheres to Mahler’s specific markings so the music unfolds at a perfect pace and the dramatic sections make a powerful statement. This is true in the first and final movements, in particular, where Mahler no longer gilds the lily as in some of his earlier symphonies and gives the listener intense emotion as the movements develop. Blomstedt understands this and delivers. What a shame Mahler never got to hear this incredible symphony performed.

The two middle movements are perfect foils for the opening movements—suitably colourful in the ‘Ländler’ then intense in the ‘Rondo-Burleske’. The many solo contributions in these movements are very characterful—rough hewn when needed contrasted with the silkiest solo playing.

Strings and horns, so important in the opening movement and final ‘Adagio’ play with uniform ensemble and beautiful tone. You won’t be pining for one of the great orchestras a couple of hundred kilometres south in Munich. But, is it the equal of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s greatest orchestras? No. All sections don’t have quite the power or the final ounce of sophistication of that incredible orchestra. Few do. I saw them play Mahler 5 in May in Munich. A shattering experience.

Back in Bamberg, Blomstedt gets the tempos just right. Many take the ‘Ländler’ too quickly so the transition to the reprise where the horns have 16th note scales on the upbeat sound rushed, and in some cases, ridiculous.

BR Klassik gets the sound right. The Bamberg Keilberth Hall has been refurbished and by all accounts is quite fine, and miles better than the Gasteig to the south. That BR Klassik make the Bavarian Radio Symphony sound so good in that hall is a near engineering miracle. Here, it’s all sweetness and light, sounding superb on both CD and HiRes streaming.

If you need a 9th, buy with confidence. If you need another (one is never enough, surely?), the same. But, in the dark corner over your left shoulder is the granddaddy of all 9ths, the best, the tops, never eclipsed. Karajan/Berliner Philharmoniker. Not his studio version which is outstanding, but the Berlin Festival live DG performance from a couple of years later which is cataclysmic in effect.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D major

Bamberger Symphoniker
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor

2 CDs