It was to Bruno Walter that Mahler entrusted the score of his Ninth Symphony in the autumn of 1910, knowing that he himself would not live to conduct the premiere. Walter gave the premiere on June 26, 1912, in Vienna, and throughout his long career remained the work's greatest champion. He was 84 when he made this recording, and the reading he elicits from the Columbia Symphony is suffused with nostalgia, warmth, and deep sentiment. Here, a work of leave-taking is interpreted in the spirit of leave-taking, though the treatment is no less radiant and sincere for being somewhat detached.
You will probably be as incredulous as I was to learn that the greatest cycle of Mahler symphonies comes not from any of the usual suspects - Abbado, Bernstein, Chially, Haitink, Kubelik, Rattle, Sinopoli, Solti, Tennstedt - but from the unsung Gary Bertini, who spent the better part of his career as music director of the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. Unlike any of those more publicized sets, each of which includes a misfire or two, Bertini is consistently successful from first to last; his performance of each of these works can stand comparison with the very best available.
So there's lots to admire here, and very little to criticize, but competition in these two works is so strong, and standards of both playing and interpretation are so high, that it's impossible to give this set an unqualified recommendation. That said, these are very enjoyable performances that never once fail to uphold the highest international standards of playing, and they are really superbly recorded. If you have a chance to hear them, you will doubtless be glad that you did.
David Atherton made a fine reputation for himself as a contemporary music conductor back in his salad days with the London Sinfonietta, nowhere more so than in his three-disc (now two-CD) set of music by Kurt Weill. He certainly hasn’t lost his magic touch in the intervening years. These performances of the two symphonies sweep the (not very full) board. Swift, lean, incisive, and always exciting, Atherton reveals all of this music’s anger, irony, and bittersweet lyricism without a trace of histrionics or self-indulgence. Indeed, a certain coolness is part of the point too. And so in the marvelous Second Symphony, Atherton catches the neo-classical temper of its outer movements with impeccable wit and grace, making the passionate intensity of the magnificent central slow movement all the more shocking as a result.
Recordings of all the Beethoven symphonies with their chief conductor are always a milestone in the artistic work of the Berliner Philharmoniker. So it was with Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado, and expectations are correspondingly high for this cycle conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Where does the special status of these symphonies come from? Simon Rattle has an explanation: “One of the things Beethoven does is to give you a mirror into yourself – where you are now as a musician.” In fact, this music contains such a wealth of extreme emotions and brilliant compositional ideas that reveal the qualities of the orchestra and its conductor as if under a magnifying glass.