Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Bamberger Symphoniker/Nott (Tudor 7162) | Royal Stockholm Philharmonic/Gilbert (BIS-SACD1710)

25 October 2009 4.5 stars4 stars

NottJonathan Nott's ongoing survey of Mahler's symphonies for the small Swiss label, Tudor, has been building up quite a head of steam, garnering positive notices and bringing the British conductor to the attention of a wider audience. His appearances in the UK, two concerts at this year's Proms notwithstanding, are all too few but this cycle has established him firmly as a Mahler conductor of the very highest quality. And the urgent recording of the ninth he adds to it here sees him approaching the half-way mark (the first, fourth and fifth have already appeared) and is a remarkable achievement all round. While Nott's recording shows his partnership with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra going from strength to strength, Alan Gilbert's new recording of the same symphony was recorded at a series of valedictory concerts with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra before the conductor's well-publicised move across the Atlantic, to take the helm of the New York Philharmonic.

Although Gilbert produces some excellent playing from the Stockholm orchestra – he remains their Conductor Laureate – they are not always quite as wholly idiomatic as Nott's outstanding Bambergers. No doubt the Bavarian orchestra benefit from being half way through their cycle, and with Nott they inhabit the music fully; they are alive, particularly, the subtlety of Mahler's irony. Their accounts of the central two movements are outstanding in this regard, their Ländler is particularly enjoyable for its rustic boisterousness. Alongside, it becomes clear how for all the vibrancy of his accounts, Gilbert can sound a little four-square and less nuanced.

GilbertOf course, though, it's in the expansive outer movements of the symphony where the bulk of the emotion resides. Nott inspires his players to highly impassioned, long-breathed performances that gets to the heart of the matter. Although he takes considerably longer than Gilbert in the opening Andante comodo (29'46 against 26'41) there's no less sense of momentum or drama – the recurring timpani strikes rarely sound so chilling, for example – whilst allowing himself the space when required. Gilbert, on the other hand, exercises a refreshing freedom with tempo with several exciting, sudden rushes of blood to the head, as for example around the 6 minute mark; this work might reflect a certain resignation but Gilbert is also keen to emphasise the passions that are never far from the surface, even if his strategy might not be to everyone's taste. Nott's more expansive way with the extraordinary duet between flute and horn and the build-up before it strikes me as more successful, though, where a more leisurely tempo seems necessary. Despite a slightly penetrating E flat clarinet, though, Gilbert's account of the final pages are deeply moving.

Similarly, Nott's Adagio is beautifully controlled, capturing the music's ethereal passion with the skill of an instinctive Mahlerian, carefully drawing the line of the movement's expressive trajectory clearly and patiently. It's also worth pointing out that the Bamberg orchestra perform with a passion and commitment that is second to none, helping Nott to produce one of the finest accounts of this symphony for some time. The Stockholm players give no less commitment to Gilbert – and both orchestras enjoy outstanding contributions from their leaders – and I felt Gilbert's account was perhaps at its best in his own fine account of the Adagio. More drawn out than Nott's, the conductor's skill is just as evident, getting more directly to the heart of the matter than in the earlier movements, and achieving enormous poignancy in a daringly slow coda.

Both of these accounts are welcome additions to a Mahler catalogue that continues to grow as we approach the composer's anniversary year. Nott's joins the front runners yet if Gilbert's is a fractionally less consistently successful account, it still provides a fitting souvenir of his success in Stockholm, as well as an encouraging portent of his directorship in New York. Both accounts are released on Hybrid SACDs, boasting demonstration quality engineering.

By Hugo Shirley