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Fanfare January/February 1997

Benjamin Pernick, Fanfare

MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 In A Minor.

Benjamin Zander conducting the Boston Philharmonic Or-chestra. IMP
DMCD93 (ODD); two discs: 52:29, 31:44. Produced by Dominic Reeves. (Distributed
by Allegro.)

MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor.

Thomas Sanderling conducting the St. Petersburg Philhar-monic
Orchestra. RS 953-0186 [ODD); two discs: 35:54, 45:13. Produced by Roberto
Salemi. (Distrib-uted by Qualiton.)

Something of a cull figure in the Boston area, conductor Benjamin
Zander likely has low name recognition elsewhere. His orchestra, the Boston
Philharmonic, is a community organization made up of amateurs, students, and
professionals. It may seem as improbable as a third-party candidate winning the
presidency, but from this unheralded combination has come one of the three
greatest Mahler Sixths this reviewer has ever heard. Tempos and phrasing sound
unerringly appropriate, as in the opening march, where Zander, just a bit slower
than Bernstein, comes closer to Mahler's indicated Allegro. Powerful and
implacable, it is permeated with a sense of impending doom, while the following
Alma theme is both soaring and passionate. In the bridge passage at 4:59-5:08
leading up to the repeat, comes one of the score's many fine points that Zander
does not overlook; never has this part, which includes ten notes marked
"spring. Bogen." (bouncing the bow on the string) sounded so striking
and effective. Yet another small, but notable plus is th'e manner in which the
grotesqueries at 9:23-9:5! arc brought out so well. Benefiting from a superior
illusion of distance (the cowbells are truly immcr in der Feme), the
pastoral episode is beautiful and ethereal. Too often the f'herzo's tempo is
insufficiently differentiated from the opening Allegro's; that is not the case
here. In addition, with sharply articulated, well-sprung rhythms and snarling,
sneering brass, there is no blunting of the darker, menacing elements. If the
Scherzo sections are quite demonic, the yearning Trios are given a lovely lilt.
The Andante (placed third), is tender and expressive; the English horn melody is
particularly well phrased and sculpted. The entire Misterioso part (11:00+ ) is
wonderful, as are the intense climaxes at 13:00+. From the. start to finish, the
Finale is superb. The music surrounding the low bell "in the distance"
and the later brass chorale are palpably foreboding. Zander is unafrajd to
linger a little in the bell (both cow and low) sequences; these, too, register
tellingly. Perhaps the final last-shovelful-of-earth-on-the-coffin pizzicato chord
may not be as devastatingly terminal as Rattle's, but is superior to most.
Lastly, this is one of the few perform-ances to restore the third hammer blow,
something I strongly favor. Mahler wanted the effect of ii "short,
powerful, heavy-sounding blow of non-metallic quality, like the stroke of an
axe", which is created here by whacking a timpani crate with a plumber's
pipe. The result is astonishing, and the best hammerschlagen I've ever

IMP's live recording of a Jordan Hall (Boston) concert is
exceedingly natural, honest, and ungimmicked. The clarity beats many studio
productions, and, as noted earlier, depth is superior. Apart from a clam here or
a rare spot of trouble there (hazards of live recordings), the orchestra is
equal to its more prestigious competitors. Michael Steinberg's notes are

Comparing two recent highly praised Sixths (Mehta/Israel Phil on
Teldec and Boulez/Vienna Phil on DG) with Zander's: Mehta's sounds like a good,
slightly better-than-average job; but no more than that. Ditto for the sound.
Boulez's light, bright performance is captured in light, bright DG sonics; where
did the low end and much of the percussion's impact go? Boulez completely
bypasses the symphony's darker, angst-ridden, tragic elements and virtually
neutralizes, if not negates, its inherent emotionality. The hammer blows on both
Teldec and DG are mushy and wimped-out.

Though falling short of Zander's, Thomas Sanderling's Sixth has a
number of positive virtues: sane tempos, an elemental, visceral level of
excitement, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic's superb orchestral execution (the
trumpets show their Russian roots two or three times at most), and excellent (in
most respects) sonics. At too many critical points, however, they are undercut
by Sanderling's lightly inflected accenting and rhythmic flaccidity.
Paradoxically, Sanderling does not always let the music breathe, resulting in
many faster sequences sounding pressured and jumbled. The first twelve minutes
or so offer a microcosm of the entire performance. Though the opening march has
good tread and strength, and the percussion is vigorous, the overall impression
is that it's all a little lightweight, with Mahler's sfs being slighted.
The Alma theme has sweep, but is uninvolved and uninvolving; lots of sound and
fury, but curiously little impact. And so it goes for the other three movements.
Occasional glimpses of what might have been can be noticed in the trenchantly
chthonian growls beginning at 5:50 and much of the exciting (if excitable)
second half of the finale.

More spectacular, but less natural than IMP's, RS's recording has a
sizzling high end and forceful lows. It has great lateral spread, but little
depth with the orchestra appearing only three rows deep. I've never heard
Mahler's assorted percussion come through with greater clarity, although both
hammer blows are ineffectual and the cowbells scrawny.

In short, Zander, as only Bernstein before him, captures every
facet of the Sixth's great emotional and musical scope. It is a must-have for
any Mahler collection. Top recommendation.


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