Review of Mahler 2 recording in the Mahler Society's "Wunderhorn" newsletter
Posted: 2014-09-29 11:23:00
by Lewis M. Smoley, author of The Symphonies of Gustav Mahler: A Critical Discography
With his recording of the Second Symphony for Linn records (CKD452), Benjamin Zander continues mounting his complete Mahler symphony cycle, enhanced by his most engaging commentary (provided either on separate discs or available online). Zander’s personal perspective on Mahler can be provocative, but is always conceived from the perspective of a dedicated Mahlerian. He invariably examines each score with consummate intelligence and extraordinary interpretive perception. Here Zander delivers an excellent performance without indulging in excessively fast tempi or over-the-top high-end dynamic levels. The Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus perform beautifully, with rich tone, verve and intensity (just listen to the exquisite ppp clarinet duet during the development of the second subject in the opening movement). Soloists Miah Persson, soprano, and Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano, add immeasurably to the success of this performance, even if the soloists are closely miked (a matter of addressing practicalities rather dramatic placement). Ms. Connolly’s rendition of the Urlicht movement is one of the best ever committed to disc. In Zander’s remarks about the symphony, he argues that rubato was an important element in late nineteenth century interpretation – as it certainly was – especially in Mahler’s conducting, and that it should be applied where appropriate without hesitation. Zander is quite correct, and his application of rubato throughout this performance is tasteful and enhances the musical line without resorting to self-indulgent affectations as other conductors have done. Brief luftpausen are added occasionally, most notably in the second movement, but there they add lilt to the charming minuet theme and do not hamper natural and musical flow. The first movement is strong and dynamic, given a weighty approach that stresses the funereal character of the music yet contains moments of extraordinary dramatic power. Even if the sonic level at the top end may seem ever somewhat confined at times, dramatic import, clear lines and careful attention to details are all impressive. Zander’s tempo choices here (e.g., a moderate molto pesante into the recapitulation and the ‘true’ Tempo I for the descending triplets at the end and a relatively animated main tempo for the second movement) are well considered. Toward the close of a rather leisurely paced scherzo movement, which brings out the wicked humor of Mahler’s scathing attack on the chaos of modern life, the huge outburst that anticipates the opening of the finale is treated as part of the whole rather than as a deus ex machine intrusion. After that episode opens the finale, its pace begins to slacken slightly, but this is simply the initial effort of Zander’s overall perspective: to affect a strong conclusion by a progression, both as to underlying impulse and dynamics, that ascends to the heights of the concluding section gradually, giving the impression of having naturally evolved as a consequence of the proceeding movements, and as a profound yet even logical (certainly glorious) resolution of the daunting metaphysical questions raised in the opening movement. The steadily paced build-up to the climax of the grave-opening segment, one of the most overwhelming experiences in all of Mahler’s music, is done with ample justice here through intensified urgency yet without unduly pushing the tempo. The final chorus could have been urged forward with a bit more pressure, but gradually the underlying impulse does become more agitated and brings the symphony to a thrilling conclusion. This performance is truly one of the few that I’ve heard recently that gives the impression of a master mind who understands the grand design of the symphony as a whole, has worked it out in great detail and applied it with passion as well as insight to achieve stirring dramatic impact. Zander’s exceptionally impressive interpretive approach is founded upon the weighty, majestic character of the opening movement, miraculously transformed in the finale to the glorious heights of heavenly splendor.