Mahler's Symphony No 6
The Gramophone Choice
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS Media 821936 0001-2 (87' · DDD) Recorded live, September 12-15, 2001. Buy from Amazon
This recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was made from performances planned long before the events of September 11 gave the San Francisco Symphony’s choice of repertory extraordinary resonance. And it’s a credit to both Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra that this ferocious performance is carried out without hysteria or self-indulgence. Tempi are judiciously chosen. In the first movement, for example, Tilson Thomas’s Allegro energico, ma non troppo is only a hair’s breadth slower than Bernstein’s in his Vienna Philharmonic recording, yet the difference is enough to give proper weight to the march. Indeed, the SFS strings dig very deep to produce a dark, throaty tone of startling vehemence. Ardently played and generously phrased, the ‘Alma’ theme provides welcome consolation – and how longingly Tilson Thomas clings to the final peaks of its melody.
Gunshot-like sforzandos from the timpani introduce the Scherzo, sharply etched here with stinging dotted rhythms. The Trios are similarly pointed – though affectionately grazioso, as Mahler requests – and rather deliberately paced, like a long-forgotten dance now remembered in slow motion. The Andante moderato is also treated expansively but the tension never sags. Tilson Thomas mis-steps only once in the sprawling finale, pressing too hard at the end of the introduction so that the orchestra arrives prematurely at the main tempo – a minor flaw and quickly forgiven.
A more impressive start to Tilson Thomas and the SFS’s Mahler cycle is difficult to imagine. Less mannered than Bernstein and more emotionally engaged than Karajan, this is an exceptionally intense and, in the circumstances, remarkably coherent performance that isn’t to be missed. Very good sound quality, too, from the orchestra’s in-house label.
London Symphony Orchestra / Valery Gergiev
LSO Live LSO0661 (77’ · DDD/DSD). Recorded live 2007. Buy from Amazon
Valery Gergiev’s Mahler series in London aroused passionately divergent responses. If you prize the textural elucidation that Claudio Abbado brings to these scores you probably won’t care for Gergiev’s broader, coarser brush. The raw excitement he engenders may seem beside the point.
This Sixth is dark, sometimes impenetrable, an impression offset only by a raft of sublime pianissimos. The silken shimmer of the first movement’s central pastoral reverie with cowbells carefully distanced offers surprising relief. Elsewhere Gergiev drives the argument forward with the kind of sullen, monolithic power he applies to Shostakovich at his most barren. While his main tempo is only fractionally faster than Bernstein’s, it seems rushed even for this most neurotic of symphonic openers. The exposition repeat is taken. The serene Andante moderato, placed second as is now the fashion, is soon being harried towards a climax that blares unmercifully. There’s more variety of tone in the Scherzo, though it’s the finale which really hits home, the orchestra whipped into a frenzy that may or may not be idiomatic but certainly strikes sparks.
If you’re looking for a quick-fire, single-disc Sixth with a difference, Gergiev has more gravitas than previous Soviet-trained conductors, even when he’s racing. LSO Live backs him up with an impactful, immediate, rather airless sound encoded as a hybrid SACD. The bright-edged, multi-linear treatment favoured by exponents as ostensibly dissimilar as Bernstein and Boulez simply isn’t on Gergiev’s agenda. Instead, a trail is blazed for a visceral, even thuggish brand of music-making. Yes, these sounds thrilled many in the hall but would you want to revisit them at home? At mid-price you can afford to find out. The enthusiastic applause has been removed.
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado
DG 477 5573GH; 477 5684GSA2 (80’ · DDD/DSD). Recorded live 2004. Buy from Amazon
Whatever the revolution in playing standards since January 1966, when Barbirolli conducted Mahler’s Sixth in Berlin, you’d be hard-pressed to encounter a tauter, more refined performance than this, or one that dispenses so completely with the heavy drapes of old-style Mahler interpretation. The work concluded Abbado’s first Philharmonie programme since passing the reins to Sir Simon Rattle, an occasion bound to provoke standing ovations and a little myth-making, too. Now, with the music repositioned on the sunny side of the Alps and seen through the prism of the Second Viennese School, an effortless, sometimes breathtaking transparency prevails.
In the first movement, Abbado’s sparing use of rubato precludes the full (de-)flowering of the ‘Alma’ theme in the Bernstein manner, and there are some curiously stiff moments in the Andante moderato, here an iridescent intermezzo quite unlike Karajan’s Brucknerian slow movement. This may not be a Sixth for all seasons and all moods – the Berliners rarely play with the full weight of sonority long thought uniquely theirs – yet reservations soon fall away. For all its fine detailing, Abbado’s finale lacks nothing in intensity, with a devastating corporate thrust that may or may not have you ruing DG’s decision to include an applause track.
A more serious stumbling-block is the maestro’s decision to place the Scherzo third, following the lead of Del Mar, Barbirolli, Rattle and others. Purchasers of a single disc CD version available in some parts of the world, or indeed the download, can re-programme, of course, but technical constraints for the hybrid SACD disc, available in the UK, have led DG to opt for a pair of discs containing two movements apiece. It must, however, be pointed out that the extra cost is borne by the manufacturer, not the consumer. And, apart from two curious pockets of resonance in the finale (on either side of the 10-minute mark), Christopher Alder’s team achieves a much more realistic balance than you’ll find in the conductor’s previous live Mahler issues. If a little cavernous, the effect is blessedly consistent, allowing us to appreciate that Abbado’s sweetly attenuated string sound is just as beautiful as Karajan’s more saturated sonority, a testament to the chamber-like imperatives of his latter-day music-making, not to mention the advantage of adequate rehearsal time!
The finale’s hammer-blows are clearer and cleaner than ever. Abbado does not include the third of these before the final coda but the hard, dry brutality of his clinching fortissimo is guaranteed to take you by surprise. Donald Mitchell provides excellent booklet-notes to cap a remarkable release.
Coupled with Kindertotenlieder*. Rückert-Lieder*
*Christa Ludwig mez Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan
DG The Originals 457 716-2GOR2 (129‘ · ADD) Recorded 1974-75. Buy from Amazon
Karajan’s classic Sixth confirmed his belated arrival as a major Mahler interpreter. His understanding of Mahler’s sound world – its links forward to Berg, Schoenberg and Webern as opposed to retrospective links with Wagner – is very acute.
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Klaus Tennstedt
LPO LPO0038 (84’ · ADD). Recorded live 1983. Buy from Amazon
Tennstedt exposes every nerve-ending of the piece from start to finish. Trenchancy is there with a vengeance from the word go – big-boned and punchy with snappy trombone accents. So it’s a corker, this performance. It sounds pretty good for 1983, though the BBC fashion then for a more ‘open’ sound slightly compromises the unflinching immediacy of the reading.