Mahler Complete Symphonies
As I remarked when reviewing Claudio Abbado’s cycle (DG, 12/95), I would not myself opt for any one conductor’s Mahler series in preference to assembling my own. Nevertheless, when the price is right, we are invited to come on down, and I approached this set hoping to encounter a valid alternative to the deep-pile Mahler of today’s international music scene, an alternative that might remind one of the composer’s Czech and Hungarian connections rather than his historical, sociological or psychological significance – in short, orchestral playing with a distinctive, Eastern European tang.
While it is certainly true that the Sofia Philharmonic produces a ‘distinctive’ sound, it is not, to put it kindly, a first-rate orchestra. It is not even a first-rate provincial orchestra. The strings may be scrawny of tone and approximate of pitch but, more crucially, there aren’t enough of them. Sample the opening pages of No. 4 and cringe at the ragged, uneven ascending scale for lower strings, the lumbering semiquaver passage that follows (scarcely pp or leggiero), the painful high B marking the peak of the cello line at 1'49'' (the appearance of the tenor clef usually bodes ill for the cellos). Similar observations pepper my listening notes: “violin portamento particularly unhappy” (No. 4, third movement, 4'51'' – the strings’ inability to arrive at the same note after any sort of slide is a hallmark of the cycle); “cello intonation suspect” (No. 7, second movement, 9'16''ff.); “violas lack tonal lustre” (No. 10, opening – I was being polite there but the renewed entry of the opening theme at 10'17'' is yet more dismal); “will they make it?” (No. 7, fifth movement, 1'20'' – the trumpets only just hanging on to their exultant fanfares).
To avoid embarrassing his players, Emil Tabakov opts for sensible speeds by and large. Faster movements are taken steadily with slow movements kept on the move. Exceptions include the reckless finale of No. 7 and the very slow first movement of No. 9. Neither tempo does the band any favours. Having set a good opening march pace for No. 6, Tabakov undermines the effect by slowing right down for the ‘Alma’ theme. And what, incidentally, is the side-drum doing in the coda of this movement? Against the odds, the finale of the Third confirms that the conductor does have a real feeling for the idiom and the best singing in the set comes from the Bodra Smyana Children’s Choir in the same work. Apart from Vessela Zorova (the contralto in No. 2) and Tamash Syule (the bass in No. 8), both of whom turn in respectable performances, the vocal contribution varies from the adequate (Lyudmila Hadzhieva in No. 4) to the ‘unfortunate’ (Brigitte Pretschner in No. 3, and nearly everyone in No. 8 where Janos Bandi verges on the comic as Doctor Marianus).
Still, the integrale is DDD, so might it not appeal to the impecunious hi-fi buff? Wrong again. Although all-digital, the recordings aren’t especially recent or especially good: the Resurrection dates from as long ago as January 1987. In general, the sound is rather harsh and dry with plenty of stage noise. No. 1 seems particularly synthetic, while the more forward balance of No. 7 is by no means an advantage with these players. More serious are the wildly inconsistent perspectives. At the start of the Eighth, the orchestra are more distant than the chorus; in the early stages of Part 2, it’s the other way round (and Pater Ecstaticus sounds as if he’s standing next to you). In No. 2, the terror of the Last Judgement is fatally undermined, while the chorus’s final syllable is completely obliterated, as is everything else, by an over-miked tam-tam.
To sum up: a cautious welcome might be extended to No. 3 (despite the inadequate soloist) and perhaps to No. 6; in both the orchestral playing is of a higher standard than elsewhere and the recorded sound is better. Nevertheless, anyone coming to Mahler for the first time should consider saving up for a big-name alternative. Capriccio’s set is well packaged for a super-budget issue but that is all and it simply isn’t enough.'