Mahler Symphony No 6

Author: 
Edward Seckerson

Mahler Symphony No 6

  • Symphony No. 6
  • Symphony No. 6
  • Kindertotenlieder

I had secretly hoped that Bernstein might have re-thought his basic tempo for the opening movement. Overall, he puts almost two minutes on his 1967 CBS recording (reissued on CD in 1986), the whole symphony gaining some 12 minutes. But no, the emphasis for his initial allegro energico is still very much on the energico—the dry march is angry, impulsive, determined, the hero for the moment—invincible. Which is one view, despatched here with vehemence and sturdiness, just as Mahler directs, but without the grim inevitability and (to my mind) essential world-weariness implied in the suggestion that cellos and basses drag their feet. Bernstein's flashing colours are that little bit too brilliant; optimistic, if you like. The arrival of ''Alma's theme''—all radiance and lust for life, the Vienna horns leaping to their descant—is not the dramatic contrast it might be.
Even so, Bernstein's acute awareness of Mahlerian sonority has, if anything, intensified since 1967: the Scherzo, with its extreme highs and lows—shriek of piccolo set against grunting basses and contra-bassoon, the rattle of xylophone—is every inch the dance of death, somehow the more unsettling for its out and out exuberance. Particularly chilling to the marrow is his handling of the trios—above all the deformed slow waltz with its skeletal col legno and dissonant stopped-horn sneers; tempo and rubato are perfectly judged. To be transported from the unearthly scream at the apex of this movement (the unreal texture here is wonderfully elucidated) to the remote serenity of the Andante is a healing experience, albeit cut cruelly short. The Vienna strings play with rare luminosity; lonely cor anglais and distant horn hang on the air.
Which brings me to Bernstein's remarkable account of the finale, and those of us weaned on his still sensational CBS realization will notice the considerable gain in breadth and ballast with less reliance now on desperate stringendos pressing the music forward into each abortive climax. There is a greater inexorability and sense of burden now; the battling march against time is more ferociously put down at each hammer blow: the first brings awesome trombones, and Vienna trumpets that really savage the stark two-part counterpoint above; with the second, it is the trumpets and tam-tam that mercilessly dominate. One notes, too, how the opening minutes of the movement benefit hugely from more space: the impressionistic texture sounds more extraordinary than ever, the various fragments of material caught in a kind of cosmic limbo. When horns and then trumpets rear up just after 2'31'', Bernstein's characterization, like cries from the abyss, achieves a terrifying modernity. Likewise the hollow twang of a solitary string bass pizzicato at each return of the heartless 'fate' motif.
Recording and playing are simply beyond reproach, and the second CD finds Thomas Hampson in a feeling, grieving account of the only logical coupling for the symphony—Kindertotenlieder. His sensitive head-voice work is particularly affecting, though I still have a deep-seated preference for the female voice in these songs. The maternal connotations inevitably add something.
But back briefly to the symphony to acknowledge the CD remastering of Horenstein's live Stockholm performance (or rather performances) from 1966—of specialist interest to any who cherished his pioneering Mahler of this period. Not that it's easy making allowances for so many technical imperfections (not least in the brass) when you've just been listening to the Vienna Philharmonic. The Stockholm trumpets, for instance, were caught on particularly bad nights, split notes are many, rhythmic laxities make for a recurrent dissipation of tension. But Horenstein's inner-light still shines through, the work's black-hearted intensity still communicates. Tempos seem broader than they in fact are, the heaving bulk of the outer movements quite literally dragging us up through crisis after crisis. I don't think I've ever heard so much made of the great crunching appoggiatura near the close of the first movement (23'18''). The recording is a little cavernous but clear.
As for an overall recommendation, Karajan and Abbado (both DG) reward re-acquaintance, but I would still part company with my colleague RO over the Tennstedt's EMI recording (see his original LP review, 12/83, and Correspondence 2/84 and 4/84) which remains, to my mind, the most uncompromising and ultimately the most disturbing vision of the piece yet committed to disc. But if you are comfortable with Bernstein's tempo for the first movement, then his new account (above all, its momentous finale) is at least as fine as any Mahler he has yet given us.'

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