SACD: Mahler—Symphony No. 3, Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Telarc)
Mark Fleischman, Home Theater, March 15, 2004
Rich, sprawling, ambitious, and perhaps a bit trying, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3 is the longest symphony ever written, according to Guinness. On this triple-SACD set, conductor Benjamin Zander leads the Philharmonia (of London) through an exceptionally lucid performance. The conductor—who has been known to preface concerts with a lecture about the evening's program—then uses the third disc to provide deep background about the symphony, following up with a phrase-by-phrase guide that leaves no tone unturned.
Even without the lecture, this recording would've been a massive undertaking. It includes two choirs: the Ladies of the London Philharmonic and the Tiffin Boys' Choir. Zander also goes out of his way to follow Mahler's orchestration. Typical of his attention to detail is the use of a post horn; he describes it as "a tiny, famously intractable instrument." To produce a rapid series of notes mimicking a bird, an English horn has been modified by removing keys and plugging holes with putty.
Telarc's fastidious recording beautifully complements this obsessive care. It has a little more bite than many of the label's other DSD (and CD) recordings and has better low-level resolution, which helps during the symphony's many quiet passages. Use of the surrounds transcends the usual hall ambience when the boys' choir imitates bells in the rear, while the women's choir and orchestra remain in front. This is one of the most revelatory moments in the history of surround orchestral recordings, and it deserves to become widely used as demo material.
A fortissimo bravo to Zander and Telarc. There's no better way to begin fathoming this difficult but rewarding work.