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András Keller and his Concerto Budapest undertook a most successful UK tour in 2022, one that garnered a considerable number of very enthusiastic press reviews, so this latest release on the Tacet label by these artists of a symphony as challenging as Mahler’s Ninth is worthy of attention, even in a catalogue bursting with rival versions of this work on CD, SACD and Blu-ray discs.

Founded in 1907 as the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, Concerto Budapest adopted its present name a century later. For the past 15 years András Keller has been the orchestra’s Artistic Director and Chief Conductor and, while building on the orchestra’s historic legacy, he has attracted many of Hungary’s foremost young chamber music players to its ranks. Keller is a musician of vast experience and as well as the founder and leader of the String Quartet that bears his name, he was leader of the Budapest Festival Orchestra from 1984 to 1991.

Keller’s account of the Symphony, recorded in the Italian Institute, Budapest in December 2018. is straightforward and free of any mannerisms that might be distracting on repeated listening. His speeds for each of the four movements are well judged and the total timing of 79.04 is close to the average for the piece, eschewing the extremes of, for example, Chailly with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (89.50) and MTT (89.27).

The opening movement (26.46) is unhurried, in line with the composer’s marking of ‘Andante comodo’ but there is a pleasing sense of forward movement with a sparing use of rubato and portamento, while the climaxes are delivered with appropriate doom laden force - thanks not least to the orchestra’s impressive brass and percussion sections. (This is a 5.1 channel recording so those using a subwoofer will find that low rolls on the bass drum and soft tam-tam strokes are most telling).

Keller brilliantly captures the parody implicit in Mahler’s ‘rustic Ländler’ (14.28) and allows the listener appreciation of the many superbly articulated woodwind solos in a movement that can, in the wrong hands, outstay its welcome. The Rondo-Burleske that follows (12.16) requires the utmost virtuosity from any orchestra and Keller’s musicians rise to the challenge. He makes no concessions to his players possible unfamiliarity with this music and drives it with considerable dynamism while maintaining clarity, even in the furious closing pages.

The final Adagio (25.34) is for this listener the apogee of Keller’s performance. He allows the strings of Concerto Budapest their head and they respond with playing of considerable intensity and richness supported by an equally impressive horn section. After the final climax the gradual descent to silence is beautifully controlled as the closing pages totter to the edge of audibility.

Of course it would be wrong to suggest that the young players comprising Concerto Budapest have quite the same suppleness of phrasing, unfettered virtuosity or sharpness of attack as that found on many of the innumerable recorded performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by the world’s finest orchestras from say Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and, of course, Budapest, but their playing is both characterful, cultivated, expressive and clearly committed.

Keller is on record as saying that his idea in symphonic music is to have 70-80 people playing chamber music with each other and singing together like a polyphonic choir and that all instrumental music is a kind of transformation of human singing. Few would argue that this lucid and involving Mahler performance represents a clear confirmation of his view.

This recording was made in Tacet’s proprietary ‘Real Surround Sound’ which uses all available channels in a well balanced surround system to provide an enveloping musical experience with the listener at the centre. For some this is too controversial, for others it offers a unique if unusual perspective on the music. It should also be noted that if the 5.1 surround experience is not to your taste, Tacet do provide a stereo (2-channel) version on the disc.

In all respects this is a recording well worth investigating.

Copyright © 2023 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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