MAHLER Symphony No. 6,
Christopher Abbot - Fanfare November/December 2002
With this recording of the Sixth Symphony, Benjamin Zander comes into competition with himself for the first time in his Mahler series. His first recording, with the Boston Philharmonic, was widely praised as among the best—if not the best—on disc. Well, the superlatives should start flowing again, because this one is even better.
Tempos in the first movement have broadened somewhat, but rather than a noticeably uniform slowing (such as the lead-in to the "Alma" theme and in the "mountain air" episode) that one notices the extra rubato. The opening is heavier, but also more empathetic—the tread of inevitability. There are also some emphatically ugly sounds. The trumpets often blare out their sour contributions. One detail is telling: The Major-minor "seal" in the trumpets is done exactly as notated—the trumpets diminishing just as the oboes get louder, few conductors observe this carefully enough. The violins in "Alma" are quite ecstatic, and since they are divided antiphonally, the effect is a decided contrast to the heaviness of the opening march.
There is clarity aplenty. The harp and celesta are a magical presence. Telarc's sound is little short of miraculous: the depth of the basses and timpani never overwhelms the balance in the orchestra, and the sound expands to accommodate the louder tutti sections. There is an appropriately sinister quality in the development, as the sour horns and skeletal xylophone make their presence known. While the heaviness of the march theme is even more pronounced. And rarely, if ever, is the sense of time in suspension achieved as beautifully as in the middle of the "mountain air" episode. Wispy, barely audible first violins trace their icy tremolos while the seconds pizzicatos barely register, the cowbells are a distant echo, and the wind and horns communicate a longing to be removed from the tumult of life below. And there is the sudden intrusion of that world as the development resumes.
The recapitulation renews the relentlessness of the march, as the basses and cellos are to the fore, accompanied by the drum battery. The diminished chorale theme scampers along, and the transitional music incorporating the secondary theme scampers along, and the transitional music incorporating the secondary themes has a new sense of calm – just before the march returns. This recording makes clear, in the coda, how Mahler invest it with a sense of real triumph, so it becomes easier to understand Mahler's reluctance to throw his listener immediately into the hurly-burly of the Scherzo, and thus his decision to reverse the order of the succeeding movements. On this recording, as on the previous one, the two inner movements are contained on disc 1, so that the listener may program either Mahler's original order, or his second thoughts (Mr. Zander makes it clear in his notes and discussion disc that he prefers the original Scherzo-Andante order).
The Scherzo opens with a very pronounced drumbeat, really pounding home the unsettling rhythm. The Trios are certainly playful by contrast, but there is an exposed quality to much of the wind music. Mahler marks this section "old-fashioned" and the starkness of the writing and the broken rhythms suggest, if not the playfulness of children (as Alma maintained), then at least a breakdown of modern life (signified by the march rhythm) into the more leisurely folk elements of the Trios. This performance captures the crudity – or naivete – perfectly. The impetuosity of the string pizzicatos and the rubato-driven broken rhythms help to reinforce the quality of childlike wonder at the world.
The Andante brings about all of the expected calm, but most noticeable is the warmth of tone in the strings, while the English horn, oboe and horn radiate a sense of well-being. One of my only criticisms of this previous Sixth, was that the cowbells were too loud in their pastoral section of this movement (in fairness, the problem is partly that of the composer); here, they are just right – audible but not jarringly intrusive. The suddenly passionate outburst in the C#-minor section (three quarters of the way though) is perfectly judged, and the violins are wonderfully emotive.
The second disc comprises the fourth movement – both of them. It is an indication of Benjamin Zander's scrupulous regard for this composer's (often contradictory) wishes that this recording includes two complete performances of the finale, one incorporating Mahler's original scoring and third hammer-blow, and one omitting them. It is therefore possible to program any version one cares to listen to, original, revised and Critical Edition.
The almost expressionistic scoring of this fascinating movement is heard in detail and with tremendous impact in these recordings. The shadowy, brooding exposition achieves nearly Wagnerian power as the fragmentary themes cohere eventually into the main Allegro. The almost Ivesian opening of the development is all atmosphere and small gestures – the bells are perfectly distanced. The secondary section in D achieves the glowing feeling of optimism that's need for the hammer blow to have optimum impact. The blow itself is perfect: Dull, heavy, wooden (produced by hitting a specialty-made crate with a lead pipe, according to the conductor). There is tremendous energy in the development. The themes spar with each either with elan, and then are all sent reeling by the second hammer-blow.
The recapitulation captures the sense of decadence (in its literal sense), as the themes try once again to reassert themselves but are caught in a miasma of despair. Finally, in a Herculean effort, the brass blaze out with the main motives, and the struggles continue. Orchestral execution in this movement is a match for any on record, and the sound is demonstration-quality: for instance, the tam-tam is a great wave of sound. The third hammer-blow is just what Mahler wanted – not as loud as the previous two, but just as decisive. The orchestration in the revised ending – the texture was thinned out – definitely affects the sense of cataclysm, since the collapse is a little more muted. The final notes are apocalyptic in both versions.
Michael Tilson Thomas produced a tremendously effective performance for which he has deserved praise (including mine in 25:6). Benjamin Zander exposes more of the detail, however, and in some way that has everything to do with musicianship, professionalism, and most of all, love for this music, produces a transcendent performance. I came away from the MTT performance impressed by his power (especially under the circumstances of its recording). But I come away from this performance drained, enlightened, in awe of this level of music-making (it should go without saying that the accompanying discussion disc is the familiar blend of insight, humor, and commentary, with quite illuminating analysis of the thematic construction of each movement). In a just world, this recording would come to be regarded as a classic performance, in the same way that the first Leonard Bernstein recording has. It belongs in every record collection.