Death-obsessed and superstitious, Mahler tried to outwit Fate by composing an unnumbered "song symphony" after the Eighth, but when he wrote the Ninth in 1907, he had been crushed by several devastating blows and knew he was fatally ill. It remained his last completed symphony, and was not premiered during his lifetime. The symphony is a heart-breaking mixture of holding on and letting go, of joy and beauty remembered and distorted by the anguish of loss, of doomed hope, protest, defiance, and resignation. Its extreme changes of mood and emotion are indicated by Mahler's instructions, such as: "with inmost feeling," "very tender and expressive," "like a heavy funeral march," "with fury," "with utmost force," "without expression." The third movement, called "Burleske," is marked "very stubborn"; the second, a three-part dance called "A comfortable Ländler," is subtitled "somewhat clumsy and very uncouth." Changes of tempo and dynamics are often sudden and violent; climaxes build up, collapse, rise again, scale the heights. The orchestral colors are exploited to their maximum. The last movement is a leave-taking reminiscent of the "Farewell" from the "Song of the Earth," and, like it, dies away into nothingness.
Recorded live in Vienna in January 1938, the playing is deeply committed if not entirely perfect, and if all the lines of Mahler's complex, multi-thematic counterpoint are not always clear, one must remember that if he had heard or conducted the work, he might, as always, have made emendations. The performance is historically significant: two months later, Hitler invaded Austria and Walter, Mahler's foremost champion, as well as concertmaster Arnold Rosé, who plays the violin solos, and many other orchestra members, had to flee for their lives. --Edith Eisler
The January 1938 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is not only of "historic" value, because of the ominous circumstances in which it was performed and recorded. The performance itself is also a revelation -- or at least is to me. The recorded sound is remarkable for its time. It also does not matter (to my ears), because the performance pierces the listener despite its age. It is a far more angular, urgent, even fierce reading of Mahler than Walter's later studio recording. It is emotionally raw. I purchased the CD with the 1938 performance in May 2010, and it is one to which I know I will often return -- together with interpretations by Klemperer and Horenstein. If I had to choose between the two Wwalter recordings I would refuse to choose! Both are essential to an understanding of the inner world of Mahler and the world he evoked.
The producer was EMI’s Fred Gaisberg, who set up the recording knowing well the symphony was so rarely performed at that time. Since five rehearsals had been scheduled, there was ample time for EMI’s engineers to set up what was a live recording. Two machines were used, running in harness: while one was recording, the other was being reloaded with wax. Eight weeks later, Austria was annexed by Hitler. A number of the Vienna Philharmonic’s principals fled the country, as did Walter.
Gaisberg caught up with Walter in Paris to obtain his approval of the set’s twenty 78 rpm sides. He recalled: “So delighted was he with the results that his usually sober face brightened up considerably."
Listening to the account is like stepping back in time, and it can be a chilling experience. The sound is amazingly clean and ambient for a recording from this time. Five stars.
What accounts for so great a performance? Most probably it was due first to Walter's close association with Mahler and, second, to the fact that both Mahler and Walter were Jews who would feel the full burden of the times as the Nazi onslaught that was beginning to come into full swing. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that a certain person, namely your truly, saw the light of day for the first time at 3.a.m. on the day of the performance, even though I still personally harbor feelings about the synchronicity of the events. I often wonder, was it purely by chance that Mahler was to become my favorite composer and Walter my favorite conductor?
Walter was to perform the symphony many times after this 1938 concert and set it down in a stereo tape in his autumn years, but for a number of reasons he was not able to recapture the event on this disc. The sound of the disc, it goes without saying, is not high fidelity but the performance is. I usually place a good deal of emphasis on the quality of the sound when evaluating a recording, but when listening to this disc it's not long before I lose all consciousness of the sonic limitations.
If you love Mahler or even love music in general you need this disc.