Critical reaction to Gustav Mahler's reorchestration of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, "Choral," was almost uniformly hostile in his day, despite widespread audience approval. Even though some commentators recognized that Mahler's intentions were good -- essentially, he meant only to adapt and update Beethoven's score to the richer sounds of the post-Romantic orchestra -- his wholesale changes were resoundingly rejected. Yet while this matter was a point of contention around 1900, the intervening century has given Mahler the reputation of a master of the modern orchestra that he lacked then, even as a highly respected conductor. His arrangement of this symphony now can be understood as an earnest and highly skilled attempt to make Beethoven's orchestration relevant to a post-Wagnerian audience. Somewhat less generously, one can also see it as an egotistical attempt by Mahler to improve on a fellow genius' handiwork. In any case, it's a rare listener today who would seek out this version, in light of the numerous historically informed performances on disc and the increasing public preference for the sonorities of a pared-down period orchestra. The ideal listener for this stupendous-sounding hybrid SACD by Kristjan Järvi and the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich is probably the ardent Mahler fan who knows about this notorious version, yet has never actually heard it played. On the whole, it's an enjoyable experience, not too far removed from Beethoven's original music, despite the denser textures, fuller timbral palette, and beefier bass lines, and it is interesting for the contrapuntal details that stand out, particularly in Mahler's doublings of the winds. No one should mistake this for Beethoven's masterpiece, which is essential to have in every classical collection. But the dabbler in arcane Mahleriana will be only too happy to have this historically important rarity in their libraries.
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AllMusic Review by Blair Sanderson
|Symphony No. 9 in d minor, Op. 125|