Mahler Symphony No 6

Author: 
Edward Seckerson

Mahler Symphony No 6

  • Symphony No. 6
  • Symphony No. 6

Chailly has been listening to Barbirolli—at least that's the impression I take away from his grand, monolithic accounts of the outer movements. Tempos are very broad and implacable; symphonic unity takes precedence over dramatic impetus. In short, there are gains and there are losses, just as there were with Barbirolli. I like the burdened, dispiriting complexion of the opening goose-step. If there were more drag in the cellos and basses, the effect would be both stronger and uglier. Chailly conveys his energico in weight and accenting, and the sharpness of the textures: plangent clarinets dominate. The air of dogged determination is just right—these negative forces are here to stay. With Alma's theme, though, the mood must surely lighten—a ray of hope, an encouraging lift to the spirits, albeit transitory. There must be some element of contrast, some blessed release from the dogged march rhythm. Bernstein, in his two recordings (with the VPO for DG, and the NYPO on mid-price CBS) knows how to catch this exultant tune on the wing, as does Rattle; Chailly's phrasing simply doesn't yield—tempo remains set, the expression fixed. And this strict, unvaried pacing grows increasingly counterproductive as the movement runs its course. We begin to feel the slowness, the need—especially in the development and coda—for greater urgency. And I'm not necessarily advocating Bernstein's headlong juggernaut; just a more febrile intensity and sense of movement.
I am happier with Chailly's Scherzo and Andante, the former a touch over-manicured perhaps but exemplary in point and accent, and duly grotesque in its neurotic rubatos—truly a Landler danced by ogres with futile attempts at elegance in the two trios and oily, inky-black colours. The Andante is vintage Concertgebouw, mellowed and comforting, exquisitely sounded, but touched too with uncertainty as woodwinds grow restless and solo harp chimes out its warning. Again, though, Chailly's precision does work against him: his handling of those key violin phrases—wide, leaping intervals that speak of unbearable longing—carries little intensity; plain as opposed to simple.
From the strange 'cosmic' violin motif of the opening (Chailly favours the glazed-over sound in preference to Bernstein's cry from the wilderness) to the closing threnody on trombones, the finale brings quite startling clarity to Mahler's prodigious scoring—confirmation of a recording that is second to none in my experience of this piece. Inner detail is vividly projected through even the thickest washes; sounds are lurid, strange, and beautiful, and those two infamous hammer-blows are every decibel the awesome cracks of doom that Mahler must have imagined. You have been warned. So what is missing? Danger, a sense of desperation and utter futility. Like Barbirolli, Chailly conveys a supreme nobility but precious little of the torment. The sound and fury of this piece is ripped from the very soul of its composer. 'Elemental' is the only word for this music; nothing less will do.
Rattle gets closer to the heart of the matter, though still not close enough. Again it's the finale—superbly chronicled, impressively sounded, a harrowing sense of inevitability pulling us towards catastrophe, but lacking that knife-edged instability, the feeling that each and every bar might be the last. Bernstein actually makes listening difficult (especially in his DG reading, broader and more extreme of gesture than the taut CBS); Tennstedt (EMI—nla) did too. Rattle piles on the agony in a surer, more methodical manner. Not until we reach the last and most desperate assault of all does one truly feel the white heat of inspiration: the final pages are tremendous. With fate poised to deliver the death-blow, the music seems to drag itself up through sheer effort of will. Rarely has this single cadence sounded more overwhelming. Rattle even tempts providence and reinstates the third hammer-blow—though it could be argued that the impact would be greater still if the hammer were more distinct from a muffled bass drum (as in the Tenth on EMI (CD) CDS7 47301-8, 6/86): less of a dull thud (which I realize is what Mahler implied), more of a crack (chez Chailly).
Rattle has lived long and hard with this great score and if I sound guarded, this is more a reflection of my expectations that his shortcomings. There is so much to admire. In a first movement which brings longer, heavier bows and greater flexibility than Chailly—all within the context of a more viable basic tempo—I would single out the aforementioned Alma theme, the elation all in phrasing that moves (just listen to the shaping of those descanting horns); and then, in marked contrast, that moving central episode—a departure to higher regions, beautiful in the Chailly performance but almost surreal with Rattle, particularly in those eerie, strangely moving bars with bass clarinet nuzzling among shimmering strings and cow-bells (15'21''); or the menacing recapitulation (the stomp of basses and trombone-heavy brass ever more intimidating) and the big moment of the movement—that huge halting dissonance, like a massive appoggiatura, the harmony laid bare as only Rattle knows how.
Rattle's ordering of the middle movements—the 'right' order he insists—re-opens an all too familiar controversy. The catalogue of confusion as to Mahler's change of heart over this matter is far too complicated to re-examine here. Suffice to say that most conductors (including Chailly) take the published order—Scherzo second, Andante third; Rattle does not, and I know how strongly he feels that Mahler's final word was as he performed it (and as the parts are printed), with the movements reversed (EMI have split them between the two CDs, so you can forget about programming the alternative). Certainly no one has yet produced firm evidence that Mahler in fact changed his mind again just before he died, and I take Rattle's point regarding the overall harmonic structure of the piece. On the other hand, one does lose the enormous tactical shock of the Scherzo as a distorting mirror on the first movement (it has been suggested that Mahler's re-ordering was in fact a compromise, a softer option) and there's no doubt that the sense of unease left by the scherzo somehow heightens the precarious fragility of the Andante. Rattle's Andante is a thing of rare inward beauty. The softer dynamics—like forest murmurs in a troubled world—have to be heard to be believed: muted strings are traced in at barely a whisper and Rattle secures one upward glissando which quite literally seems to reach out for the light. There are heartbreaking solos from cor anglais and horn, and the CBSO strings put the Royal Concertgebouw in the shade with their suppleness, serenity and intensity.
Chailly offers an apposite bonus in the shape of six Maeterlinck settings by Zemlinsky—twilight fantasies of medieval castles, pining damsels and gallant knights, scored with opulence and intrigue (sinister harmonium figuring prominently), to which the dark, vibrant tones of Jard van Nes are well suited. But Chailly's Mahler Sixth, incomparably recorded though it is, does not have the reach of Rattle's reading (it, too, is impressively, unobtrusively engineered); still less of Bernstein's. Abbado and Karajan (both DG) should not be forgotten among the strong contenders, but Bernstein, despite an over-impulsive first movement, is something else again.'

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