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Boston Phoenix - Live And On Record

Boston Phoenix

The latest recordings by Boston's two most devoted and persistent Mahler conductors both include the sixth and bleakest of Mahler's nine completed symphonies. Seiji Ozawa's. recorded live at Symphony Hall in 1992, is part of his complete Mahler cycle for Philips (on a three-disc set that also includes the Third Symphony) and commemorates his first shot at it. His Mahler has been praised more for its ambition than for its success. Benjamin Zander, on the other hand, is famous for Mahler, whom he's been conducting for decades. The board of the Boston Civic Symphony fired him partly for scheduling too much Mahler, and so he founded his own "community" orchestra, the Boston Philharmonic. Last season, for one movement of the Mahler Seventh, the New York Mahler Society allowed Zander to use the actual baton Mahler used in the world premiere. He first led the Mahler Sixth in 1984. His debut Mahler recording (IMP Masters) is a live performance of the Sixth Symphony at Jordan Hall last year.

Ozawa's Sixth gives us 80 minutes of undifferentiated episodes - a little this-a followed by a little that-a. The last movement gets faster and louder, so there's Ozawa's usual bang-up finale. But one has no idea why one thing leads to the next. For example, the first movement begins with a military march. Then there's a woodwind chorale with pizzicato strings, which in turn leads to an impassioned love theme (the "Alma" theme). When the march returns, it's superimposed on the love theme. In Ozawa's performance, except for changes in volume and tempo (which is sometimes a bit rushed), there's little sense of transition, that the chorale is something new and quite different from the march, and different again from the love theme. It's just the next item on the menu. The Andante is gorgeously played, but faceless. Paradoxically, because there's no emotional center, sections seem excessively - and falsely - emotional, sentimental, and, in the final outbursts, melodramatic. And ultimately monotonous. (The Third Symphony, recorded last year, with Jessye Norman at her most opulently mannered, shows how much Ozawa has learned about phrasing, tempo, and pacing in two years.)

Zander, however, has always been a master of transition. Each new episode is a dramatic event, part of an imaginary story. Mahler's broad canvas is like a huge novel. The new recording shows Zander's reconsideration of the Sixth, which in 1984 struck me as being too abstractly brutal, lacking the enlivening human de- o tails that make a Zander performance so remarkable. He too has learned a lot since then, such as how to make the love theme more personal, more "felt"
as in Boulez does, or as John Barbirolli did.

Barbirolli did on his classic '60s recording, the first movement of which is so moving and scary because it's so daringly slow (EMI is finally reissuing the performance next month). Zander's slow movement is darker, more disturbed, more soul-searching than most versions - not the usual oasis from the terror. And the last movement, with its three fatal hammer blows, is devastating. The Boston Phil may play rougher than the BSO, but it gives the more fully realized performance, utterly gripping, powerful, mysterious, and surprising - the real Mahler.


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