The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony were given on April 6 and 7, 1950, in Orchestra Hall under the baton of guest conductor George Szell. Since then, the work has been led by music directors Rafael Kubelík, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim; principal conductor Bernard Haitink; principal guest conductors Carlo Maria Giulini and Pierre Boulez; and Ravinia Festival music directors James Levine and James Conlon; along with guest conductors Sir John Barbirolli, Lawrence Foster, Michiyoshi Inoue, Hans Rosbaud, and Michael Tilson Thomas.

The Orchestra has recorded the work on three notable occasions, as follows.

Carlo Maria Giulini, the Orchestra’s first principal guest conductor, led Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in December 1971 and March 1975 before returning in April 1976 to perform and record the work. Following the first concert of that residency, Karen Monson in the Chicago Daily News wrote that “each time the aristocratic maestro meets the transcendent symphony, the relationship becomes more and more special, Giulini and the Orchestra have delved into the deepest secrets of this music, and Thursday evening they delivered a performance so rich and complete . . .”

In the Chicago Tribune, Thomas Willis called the performance “one of Giulini’s great nights in Orchestra Hall.” Recording sessions were scheduled for the following week, and “by the time the tape is rolling, this could be the most heartfelt and compelling recorded version of Mahler’s grief-stricken penultimate symphony. . . . The Chicago Symphony players will take any risks for Giulini. If he wishes them to play softer than soft, applying bow to string, or breath to mouthpiece or reed, they proceed to just this side of bobble or discomfiting silence. . . . No other guest has such control over orchestral color and emotional variation.”

Deutsche Grammophon was on hand on April 5 and 6, 1976, to record the symphony in Medinah Temple. Günther Breest was the executive producer and Klaus Scheibe the recording engineer. The release won the 1977 Grammy Award for Best Classical Orchestral Performance from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Eighth music director Sir Georg Solti first led the Orchestra in Mahler’s symphony at Orchestra Hall and Carnegie Hall in April 1981 before taking it on the road to Lucerne, Paris, Amsterdam, and London later that year. Back in Chicago, Solti led a concert performance (benefiting the musicians’ pension fund) on April 28, 1982, and recorded the symphony on May 2 and 4 in Orchestra Hall.

Reviewing in Gramophone magazine, Richard Osborne noted: “When Solti conducted Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in London in the autumn of 1981 the critic of The Financial Times observed: ‘Solti obviously knew how this music should gobut not why.’ Such a reading would be an evident act of self-parody, for it is to this very theme—the modern world’s nightmarish preoccupation with sensation, spiraling, self-referring and impossible to assuage—that Mahler so fearlessly addresses himself in the symphony’s third movement, the Rondo Burleske. It’s clear, though, from the present recording, made in Orchestra Hall, Chicago in May 1982, that Solti’s sense of the music is a good deal more rooted than it appeared to be amid the unsettling razzmatazz of an end-of-tour London performance.

“The new performance has a measure of repose about it as well as much splendour. The second movement is robust and resilient as Mahler directs. There is defiance and obstinacy in the third movement, an awful power which illuminates the music rather than the orchestra’s known expertise.”

James Mallinson produced the recording, and James Lock was the engineer for London Records. The recording won 1983 Grammy awards for Best Orchestral Recording, Best Engineered Recording—Classical, and Best Classical Album.

Soon after being named as the Orchestra’s third principal guest conductor, Pierre Boulez was in Chicago to lead four performances of Mahler’s Ninth in November December 1995.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma wrote that Boulez led “one of classical music’s most profound meditations on relentless death and tumultuous life” as a “study in musical clarity, elegant balances, and proportion. . . . Many conductors play up the contrasts, creating dramatic mood shifts. Boulez and the CSO were after something more subtle.” John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune added that Boulez “[filtered] the work through his own modernist sensibility. Granted, there are ambiguities and uncertainties in this symphony that resist so rational an approach. But there are also levels of purely musical meaning few other conductors have uncovered. The otherworldly stillnesses, the demonic humor, the desolate nostalgia, the strange lapses into folkish banality registered that much more strongly because the hand organizing them was so calm and precise. . . . Let us hope the studio sessions capture in full the splendor of the live performances.”

For Deutsche Grammophon, the work was recorded at Medinah Temple on December 2 and 4, 1995. Roger Wright was the executive producer, Karl-August Naegler recording producer and editor, Ulrich Vette was the balance engineer, and Jobst Eberhardt and Stephan Flock were recording engineers. The release won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 on May 17, 18, 19, and 22, 2018.

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