The Compact Collection  

This week's best CD releases

Rob Cowan
Friday 22 February 2002 01:00
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Mahler's massive Sixth Symphony runs the gamut of emotion from courageous resolve to inconsolable despair. It's one hell of a piece to get right and the simultaneous release of three very different interpretations helps explain why. The earliest is a bright-toned 1968 Bavarian Radio broadcast by the Radio Orchestra under Rafael Kubelik that runs neck and neck with a contemporaneous DG studio recording by the same artists. Both opt for the fast lane, forging forwards with relentless energy, though the live concert makes rather more sense of the speed. Mahler asks for vehemence and gets it, but the scherzo second movement – the overall tempo is very similar to the first – has a brightly lit quality that's anything but the prescribed "weighty". Kubelik opens the Andante with delectable sweetness, keeping the flow for the duration while the massive finale is swallowed whole. Of the three principal climaxes, two shatter under pressure from deafening hammer blows, though Kubelik's latest rivals drive the point home with even greater force, largely due to their superior sound quality.

By contrast, Baden-Baden's South-west German Radio Symphony, under the fiercely cerebral Michael Gielen, is almost obsessively dark. It is a slower reading than Kubelik's by some 12 minutes, and heavier on brass and percussion. Gielen and his players tread a strongly accented opening movement and make a meaty meal of the lyrical second subject (Alma Mahler's theme). The scherzo (if you can call it that) dances to a faltering gate, but it's the finale the lands the heftiest punch, especially the spooky opening and those joist-shaking climaxes, elements that anticipate Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, Op 6. Disc two programmes Op 6 as a fill-up, as well as Brian Newbould's sensitive realisation of Schubert's late Andante in B minor. It's a typical piece of Gielen programming, this, with more questions asked than answered. All three performances are indelibly memorable.

The third Sixth is the auspicious first instalment of a new Mahler cycle from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. It's both lighter and marginally broader than Gielen's, less headstrong than Kubelik's and more refined than either. Warmly blended sound and superb execution make for a uniquely centred recording. The scherzo wears a wicked smile and the slow movement has a soft-focus quality that appeals.

Tilson Thomas is a master at phrase-shaping: he conjures luminous textures (like Kubelik, he spatially divides his violin desks), but I sensed that the inflamed core of this troubled masterpiece was being skilfully surveyed rather than lived. True, the sheer beauty of sound on offer is seductive, though for my money Gielen is a powerful first choice and Kubelik a more outgoing second. Both would rate highly among current recommendations, but remember that of the three versions under consideration (all honour the important first movement repeat) only Raphael Kubelik's performance is accommodated on a single disc.

Mahler: Symphony No 6 – Bavarian RSO/Kubelik (Audité/Priory 95.480)

Mahler: Symphony No 6/ Berg: Three Orchestral Pieces, Op 6/Schubert Andante in B minor D936A No. 2 – SWF SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg/ Gielen (Hänssler CD.91.029, 2CDs)

Mahler: Symphony No 6 – San Francisco SO/Tilson Thomas (SFS/Avante 821936-0001-2. Available 25 March from retail stores or direct from http://www.shopsfsymphony.org

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