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American Record Guide - FOX

American Record Guide

Boston Philharmonic/ Benjamin Zander
IMP 93 I2CD1 (Allegro) 84 minuses

This set joins the Rattle and the two Bernstein recordings as the finest on records. This is not the Boston Symphony, but rather the semi-professional Boston Philharmonic, a community orchestra, and its conductor is not world-famous (though admired in Boston by a faithful following). All the more glory to Zander and his orchestra, for the Sixth is probably Mahler’s most difficult and complex symphony, for performers and audience alike. Zander has been conducting splendid performances of it for years. Still, when I reread the notes I had taken when first listening to this, I could not quite believe that my initial impression was so positive. After all, I have been listening for years to recorded and concert performances of the work by the great professional orchestras led by the greatest Mahler conductors. So I ran an experiment: I played excerpts for my musically knowledgeable friends (including AHC and Fanfare reviewers) from the recent Boulez recording, comparing them with the same passages In the Zander without revealing which was which. The "panel" agreed unanimously: the Boulez was cold, impersonal, underpowered, and unemotional; the Zander was expressive, powerful, involved, and far superior. Furthermore, the semi-professional Boston Philharmonic compared favorably with the august Vienna Philharmonic in the voting! The sonics, too.. were considered better in the Zander recording, but more about that later.

Zander's I is powerful, highly dramatic, and moderately paced (I now consider Bernstein too fast in the opening march). The care with which it was rehearsed is manifest in every bar. Timpani are assertive and very clearly reproduced—not a distant blur as in many recordings, including the new Boulez. There is no doubt that Mahler wanted "a veritable tempest of (timpani) sound", to quote conductor Klaus Pringshelm, who attended one of Mahler's rehearsals of the Sixth (see Mar/Apr 1991). The "Alma Theme" soars ecstatically, cowbells are admirably distant-sounding and atmospheric, and contrapuntal lines of this highly polyphonic movement are exceptionally clear. The exposition repeal is observed. Zander conveys the springbogen (the bow bouncing off the strings) in the double basses (at 5:00) with remarkable clarity; In fact, I had never before heard the effect In concert or on records, though it is in the score - another example of Zander's attention to detail and of this orchestra's quality (the effect demands especially good bowing control).

Rattle's scherzo is the best on records, its low growls from the orchestra and the tam-tam strokes making its diablerie and grotesquerie evident as never before; but Zander comes close. Unfortunately. Rattle places it third rather than second. I strongly prefer the scherzo as II, which is where Zander has it.
The Andante is achingly beautiful and particularly impassioned in the emotionally supercharged passage starting at 11:08.
Zander's finale is superb in all respects, imparting its dark despair and cataclysmic emotion as well as Bernstein and Rattle but exceeding them—and everyone else, for that matter—with the hammerblows. Mahler intended them to be musical exclamation points writ large, but neither in concert nor on records have I ever heard them so vivid. Mahler himself was never able to achieve the effect he wanted. In this recording the hammerblows are so powerful that they enhance the drama in an unprecedented way and also make the recording a sonic demonstration! Though Mahler deleted the third (and last) hammerblow for superstitious reasons, Zander restores it (as do some others), because it is musically effective.
The sonics arc terrific, balanced naturally,. clear and detailed, with an incredible dynamic range (those hammerblows!) and as accurate an image of a concert hall as I have ever heard. I have attended Boston Philharmonic performances in Jordan Hall several times and can say that hearing this is almost like being there.

All things considered—performance, sonics, and orchestral execution—when I reach for a recording of the Sixth to play for my own pleasure, it will most likely be this one.


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