The Compact Collection: Mahler First and Sixth Symphony

The week's best CD releases

Rob Cowan
Friday 08 November 2002 01:00
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Aspiring neighbours-from-hell with an ear for music have an effective weapon in a new set of Mahler's "Tragic" Symphony under Benjamin Zander, in which the last movement's crushing hammer blows fall with the sonic force of an exploding gas main. Those wishing to protect their speaker cones are strongly advised to keep the volume down. The third CD in Telarc's "three discs for the price of one" package features an absorbing analysis of this devastating Sixth Symphony in which Zander explains why Mahler's three hammer blows became two (superstition about tempting providence), and why there are two versions of the finale. One has three blows couched in Mahler's original, fuller orchestration; the other, the standard two in the more familiar lean revision. Both finales are included.

Not that there's much in it, or that we're offered two separate performances: numerous spot checks confirm that only the revised passages were redone. Taken as a whole, Zander's reading is spirited if somewhat thick in texture, at its best when the first movement exposition rushes back for the repeat. The Philharmonia is seated in the old-fashioned way, with violin desks antiphonally divided, but for me, the indispensable disc is the talk: even the most informed listeners stand to gain from hearing it.

Initial impressions of Bernard Haitink's live Sixth with the Orchestre National de France were disappointing: the temperature seemed tepid and the strings too reticent. But the further I ventured, the more I responded. As with Haitink's three previous Sixths (all for Philips), drama is internalised and a sense of grim inevitability means that the music's cumulative effect is overwhelming. There's no first movement repeat but even as early as the second subject (Alma's theme), Haitink's knack of balancing his voices so that each line sings out attests to genuinely superior conducting. Great character, too, in the scherzo, and if the finale's hammer blows (just two this time) don't quite match Zander's for joist-shaking impact, they still strike terror, more the deadening thud that Mahler had in mind. The high point arrives at the moment in the finale's last climax when Zander claims a last ray of hope but where Haitink cues a cataclysmic collapse. No third hammer blow is needed.

The Sixth was the starting point for Michael Tilson Thomas's San Francisco Symphony Mahler cycle, very beautiful but conspicuously short on ferocity. By contrast, his new live First is a real cracker, tight as a drum ensemble-wise, refreshingly direct and superbly played. Woodwinds in the first movement have a rustic charm reminiscent of Kubelik and, like Kubelik (and Zander), Tilson Thomas separates his violin desks. And there are those fabulous San Francisco trumpets, rattling off their fanfares at a terrific lick. Lean textures and lyrical phrasing are very Tilson Thomas, particularly in the scherzo's middle section and the more romantic passages in the finale, where others tend to wallow. Note, too, the accelerating klezmer-style passages in the "funeral march", in which irony never distorts to caricature.

Excellent sound, expert annotation (Michael Steinberg, as with Zander) – in fact, one of the very finest Mahler Firsts around.

Mahler Symphony No 6 (with spoken analysis and two versions of the finale) Philharmonia Orchestra/ Benjamin Zander (Telarc 3CD-80586 – 3 discs for price of one)

Mahler Symphony No 6 Orchestre National de France/ Bernard Haitink (Naïve V4937)

Mahler Symphony No 1

San Francisco SO/ Michael Tilson Thomas (Avie 821936-0002-2)

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