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Mahler - Symphony no.9

The Europadisc Review

Mahler - Symphony no.9

Philipp von Steinaecker, Mahler Academy Orchestra

£12.69

For anyone who loves Bruno Walter’s pioneering 1938 Vienna recording of Mahler’s Symphony no.9 but finds the ‘mists of time’ recorded sound to be something of a barrier, a new recording from Alpha Classics may well have the answer. Performed by the Mahler Academy Orchestra under the baton of Philipp von Steinaecker, it was recorded in September 2022 at the Gustav-Mahler-Saal, Kulturzentrum Toblach – very near to the composing hut where Mahler wrote this, his last completed symphony in the summer of 1909. That in itself is no guarantee of ‘authenticity’. But this orchestra – comprised largely o... read more

For anyone who loves Bruno Walter’s pioneering 1938 Vienna recording of Mahler’s Symphony no.9 but finds the ‘mists of time’ recorded sound to be something of a barrier, a new recording from Alpha Classics may well have the answer. Performed by the Mahler Acad... read more

Mahler - Symphony no.9

Mahler - Symphony no.9

Philipp von Steinaecker, Mahler Academy Orchestra

For anyone who loves Bruno Walter’s pioneering 1938 Vienna recording of Mahler’s Symphony no.9 but finds the ‘mists of time’ recorded sound to be something of a barrier, a new recording from Alpha Classics may well have the answer. Performed by the Mahler Academy Orchestra under the baton of Philipp von Steinaecker, it was recorded in September 2022 at the Gustav-Mahler-Saal, Kulturzentrum Toblach – very near to the composing hut where Mahler wrote this, his last completed symphony in the summer of 1909. That in itself is no guarantee of ‘authenticity’. But this orchestra – comprised largely of young musicians and playing on instruments of the sort used by the Vienna Philharmonic in the early 20th century under Mahler himself – is part of the Gustav Mahler Academy in Bolzano, established by the late Claudio Abbado, and tutored by players from many of Europe’s leading orchestras and chamber groups.

Mahler’s symphonies have been given the ‘period instrument’ treatment on disc before, but not – as far as we’re aware – anything as late or demanding as the Ninth Symphony. Its often sparse, hard-hitting textures, the moments of bucolic coarseness, exposed lines, and intimations of the hereafter, are particularly challenging, but they undoubtedly benefit from the added edginess, transparency and timbral character provided by instruments of the epoch. Not that there’s anything rudimentary about the playing of the Academy Orchestra: indeed, they stand up to comparison with the very best of modern-instrument competition in a very crowded field. But listen closely, and a myriad of telling details opens up, while Steinaecker – hitherto known on disc chiefly from his work with the Musica Saeculorum ensemble on the Fra Bernardo label – is as assured and attentive as his sometime mentor Abbado could have wished.

The differences made by the period instruments are not immediately apparent in the Symphony’s fragmentary opening, but as the music swings into life the lack of vibrato in the wind and its sparing deployment by the strings begins to make a real difference, with the woodwind in particular cutting through the textures. The strings’ glassy translucency is quite beguiling, and the ghostliness of the Schattenhaft (‘shadowy’) passage some 16 minutes in is indeed haunting. (Each movement is further subdivided into 7 or 8 tracks.) While the quieter and more sparsely scored passages best illustrate the advantages of an historically-informed approach, louder episodes also appear in a new light: the way in which the trombones’ ‘heartbeat’ motif just after fig.15 cuts through, underpinned by ominous bass drum, or the bitingly executed string ‘fanfare’ shortly afterwards and its swooping portamento.

In his absorbing booklet notes, Steinaecker writes of the ‘precariousness’ of Mahler’s orchestration (as suggested by the composer’s own comments on the matter), and this is particularly apparent in the famous duet for flute and horn underlined by deliberately awkward cellos and basses towards the end of the movement, before the movement’s beatific and eloquently-played closing pages.

The edgy sonorities of the period instruments come into their own in the coarse, Ländler-like second movement with its bucolic echoes, with the cellos and basses bringing a real groundedness to the seemingly aimless dance; and the shrieking of the woodwind (especially the E flat clarinet!) imparts a real thrill to the following Rondo-Burleske. The razor-like attack of the gut strings and the way in which the narrow-bore brass cut through without overpowering the rest of the ensemble would be almost impossible to replicate on modern instruments.

As for the great Adagio finale, its emotional content seems to be laid bare by the period sonorities: the warmth comes from Mahler’s astonishing harmonies and attendant dynamics, rather than from any souped-up left-hand vibrato. Here the extremes are not just emotional but timbral: the exposed passage for high violins against growling contrabassoon and cellos has rarely sounded so bleak, fragile or prophetic, while the antiphonally divided violins further open up the textures. In the moments of sonic warmth, the horn section (headed by Peter Dorfmayer) deserves special praise, while the entire string section play their hearts out while keeping their stylistic poise. It’s an enormously touching account of Mahler’s last completed symphonic finale, and it culminates in a climax of overwhelming intensity (yet another demonstration of how less – in terms of pure decibels – is so often more), and almost unbearably moving and quietened traversal of the final page.

The closing pages of the Symphony alone should be enough to silence the naysayers, and it should be obvious by now that this recording – a remarkable recording debut for this young orchestra – that this is a disc that deserves to be heard by Mahlerians of all hues. The Alpha team have done a remarkable job in capturing this ensemble’s characterful sound, and the only (small) black mark is that the instruments themselves – over which so much is made in the booklet – remain unidentified. Surely a list of makers and dates would have benefitted this splendid endeavour still further?

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A Bright Star Extinguished: Jodie Devos (1988–2024)

A Bright Star Extinguished: Jodie Devos (1988–2024)  19th June 2024

19th June 2024

Six months in, 2024 already seems to have brought its fair share of deaths in the world of classical music. Few, however, have come as such a bolt from the blue as that of the rising star coloratura soprano Jodie Devos, who died on Sunday 16 June at the age of just 35, following a brief battle against an aggressive form of cancer. Members of the musical community both in her native Belgium and on the international scene (where she had achieved increasing prominence and critical superlatives) have all been paying tribute to a star who shone with spectacular brightness and was extinguished way too soon.

Born on 10 October 1988 in Libramont-Chevigny, Belgium, Devos began singing classes at the age of five, with a focus on popular music. It was her dance lessons, however, that introduced her to the classical repertoire with which she soon fell in love. Her later studies... read more

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