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The Mahler Symphonies

A synoptic survey by Tony Duggan

MAHLER Symphony No. 6

revision May 2007

When I wrote the first version of this survey in 1998 I concluded it with these words:

ĎMahler said "My Sixth will be asking riddles that can be solved only by a generation that has received and digested my first five." He was right. I believe the Sixth is the principal work of Mahlerís that performers and audiences are still coming to terms with, still solving those riddles, and so my conclusions here are perforce less emphatic, more provisional. No bad thing. Part of the response to great art is the constant asking of questions. That way we become more involved and maybe another generation must pass before we come close to pinning down what Mahler was doing in this work.í

In the years that have followed, those words have stayed with me each time I have heard the work in recordings familiar from that first survey and in recordings that have appeared since. That feeling of "work in progress" with regards to both how we listeners respond to this work and how conductors interpret it never seemed more appropriate on each occasion. It has caused me in this present revision to therefore submit each recording I dealt with last time to an even fresher and even longer analysis than in the revisions that have preceded this one, along with the necessity of taking in as many of the new and newly reissued recordings that have appeared since as possible. To an extent I think I have hardened what firm conclusions I reached the first time as to how this symphony should be played. But the "work in progress" impression also remains.

In the Summer of 1904 the Sixth Symphony was emerging from Mahlerís composing hut. When life was very sweet he was mapping Downfall. Some would say his own, others that of an "Everyman", maybe it was both. Alma Mahler said: "Not one of his works came as directly from his innermost heart as this. We both wept that day. The music and what it foretold touched us deeply. ..." Yet the Sixth is formally the most classically conceived of them all; the first conventional, four movement, one key symphony he wrote. The first movement in particular sees classical form frame the drama with exposition and repeat, development, recapitulation and coda. The second subject of the exposition an abandoned, soaring theme on violins meant as a musical portrait of Alma herself but, true to the workís nature, swept aside by the march rhythms that cross and re-cross the symphony like successive generations of armies over the same battlefields. But this is creatively deceptive because there is no work of Mahlerís which is, by the end of it, more despairing and pessimistic. Alone among his symphonies, mirroring only his first major work "Das Klagende Lied", it ends in complete disaster after a last movement where Mahler seems to be dramatising in music humanity and its very condition. Our "hero" keeps pressing forward, imbued with optimism, only to be struck down three times by blows of fate amidst the battering of those march rhythms and a particularly nasty fate motif on timpani carried over from the first movement. For these "blows of fate" Mahler uses a hammer effect, the delivery of which has tested the skill of percussionists (and recording engineers) for years. The last blow of all, meant to bring in the requiem-like coda, was in the end deleted by Mahler, whether out of superstition or dramatic sense this is not the place to discuss. (Some conductors restore it against Mahlerís wishes.) Suffice it to say Mahler originally meant the whole work to have five hammer blows rather than three and that the final tally of two therefore came out of more sound musical judgements stretching back a lot further than people realise.

You will certainly hear the explanation, taken from Alma Mahlerís own account of their life together, that in this work Mahler "foresaw" his own fate. That in the year following the first performance of the work three "blows of fate" did visit him. Unless you believe Mahler had second sight this is a story that should be examined very carefully and treated with caution for all manner of reasons. That Mahler, like all great artists, could see beneath the surface of life and, in spite of his own present situation, appear to map the complete opposite is not in doubt. So see the Sixth as one of the great "human condition" works of the twentieth century, prepare to be rocked, and you will be on the right lines.

It has always seemed to me appropriate that the workís 1906 premiere took place in Essen, the cradle of German heavy industry. All those driving, relentless, militaristic rhythms, mechanistic percussion and harsh-edged contrasts that permeate so much of this work have always seemed, to me, to share kinship with the place where the work was first heard. Here were the foundries and factories that put the iron in The Iron Chancellor and built the guns that would spill the blood in his "blood and iron" when fired in World War One, the cultural pre-echo of whose cataclysm eight years later the work seems partly to illustrate. A case of Mahler the sensitive showing himself in tune with his times, I think. So I believe this symphony is, first and foremost, a twentieth century work Perhaps the first twentieth century symphony. It breathes as much the same air as Krupp as it does Freud, and its concerns are those of our time because so much of our time was formed in the furnaces of Essen as in the consulting rooms of Vienna. The work's classical structure also implies the same creative detachment crucially demanded by classical tragedy and I believe any performance thatís going to make us appreciate the Sixthís Modernism has to take this into account too, strip Mahler bare of nineteenth century sonorities and folk memories, contrast the sound of the Fifth Symphony and project, as though on a bright stage, a bitter, unforgiving elegy that opens out the tragedy into something universal, held at one remove to reinforce the tragedyís universality and confirm its contemporary relevance. I feel so strongly this is the right path the work should take that Iím prepared to court the approbation of Mahlerian comrades-in-arms and rule out versions that try to personalise this music, in the end treat it as an excuse by the conductor for romantic excess and the kind of mannered intervention it might seem to court and which many seem ready to indulge. So Iíve found the survey for this symphony the most difficult to "call" of them all and am aware Iíve cut a swathe through the list to do so. No Bernstein or Tennstedt recordings here, for example. Both men recorded the work twice (studio and "live") but both, for me, turn Tragedy into Melodrama too often by much intervention of their own personalities in mannerisms of emphasis of phrasing and colouring and tempo. Wonderful as "one-off" experiences in the concert hall, I have no doubt, but for repeated listening the creative detachment that I prefer and believe more appropriate for the work makes for a more surer guide over time. Many will disagree, of course. Many will continue to find my passing-over of Bernstein especially in this score worrying. But if you read what I have to say about this work in general you will see why I find Bernsteinís hands-on melodrama one step too far. Both of his versions are excellent in their own way and given a choice of him in the work I prefer the alert and spiky sound quality as well as the pioneering spirit of his first recording made in New York available on Sony. But I must in the end go with my beliefs about this work and remain convinced that for us to get closer to the full implications of the Sixth we must turn elsewhere and to a handful of conductors that seem to take, to a greater or lesser extent, the more circumspect, classical, symphonically-aware approach outlined above. It will mean my calling up a version or two which are hard to find, but I defend that because I believe this great masterpiece demands only the best from the recording companies.

Before we begin with the recordings let me deal with one very vexed question which last time I only brushed against. As many of you will know Mahler dithered over the order of the two inner movements of this work. The symphony was conceived with Scherzo followed by Andante and was played like that in a rehearsal and a run-through performance in Vienna. Then later at the workĎs premiere in Essen something made Mahler reverse the order to become Andante/Scherzo. He further instructed his publishers accordingly and never conducted it again in any other order in subsequent performances. But when a Critical Edition of the work was published in 1963 the then Chief Editor of the Mahler Edition, Erwin Ratz, put the order of movements back to Scherzo/Andante and this became the norm for most recordings and performances that followed - although a handful of conductors retained Mahlerís premiere performance revision. Then in 2004, which is since the appearance of the first version of this survey, the Kaplan Foundation in New York published a monograph by Jerry Bruck which sets out the case in favour of MahlerĎs Essen revision - Andante/Scherzo - as being the only one to be followed. Such was the effect of this monographís publication that a new Critical Edition of the work now affirms Andante/Scherzo order for the inner movements as the only order to be followed and that this therefore settles any question about movement order once and for all time. The problem is that it does no such thing and I shall be including in this survey an Appendix in reply to the Bruck monograph setting out why I feel this to be so. For the purposes of this survey let me simply state that, whilst I myself prefer Scherzo/Andante as the order of inner movements, I continue to believe, as indeed I always have believed, that an option of choice of inner movement order must be maintained and that it should be that of the conductor to make.


One of the finest versions of this work ever to appear is by Thomas Sanderling and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic on RS Real Sound (RS 953-0186). In an interview in "Fanfare" at the time of its release Sanderling was keen to stress that the Allegro tempo for the first movement is dictated by Mahlerís sub-marking "Heftig, aber markig" ("Vehement, but pithy") to bring out a combative, "Sturm und Drang", martial tone. So he's on the slower, grimmer end of the tempo scale. Not as slow as Sir John Barbirolli, as we will see, but steady enough to make every note tell without dragging the movement down. Which is just as well because when the "Alma theme" is reached one is still aware of a broadening, with the lady emerging with ardour. I like the contrast this gives to the movement because, though the theme is treated with some warmth, Sanderling doesn't overheat the emotion, passing it as the second subject in a sonata form pure and simple. He's helped by reining back the brass at particular points, especially in the quicker sections too. Note also the bass drum and celesta - clear without being obtrusive. When the exposition repeat is over, the return to the martial material is more grim and bitter and I like the way Sanderling makes his side-drummer sound like a second cousin to the one in Nielsen's Fifth. Too often the first pastoral interlude with cowbells is a signal for the conductor to drop his guard and introduce warmth and lyricism where sharpness of focus is still needed. That this is a contemplative moment thereís no doubt. The key lies in what kind of contemplation is presented. Fortunately Sanderling's approach is to suggest a very cold contemplation. Not as cold as Jascha Horenstein, as we shall see, but chilly all the same. The shimmers of the strings around the distant bells and cor anglais suggest the rarefied atmosphere of the high Alps where the air bites the back of the throat and whatever sun that shines has no warmth in it. By now the martial quality to the main material has been established so when it resumes it comes as no surprise. An even more pleasant surprise awaits in the coda because Sanderling resists the temptation of rushing to the end, sticking to his tempo after the great explosion of percussion. I always think to take the coda too fast, as Karajan does for example, suggests hysteria where we need optimism. Our "hero" is still in control of events, or believes he is, and this is what Sanderling gives us.

The Scherzo under Sanderling is, in his words, a "horror movement", a Danse Macabre with prominent xylophone and shrieking woodwind within the same steady tempo as the first movement. In fact Sanderling seems anxious to make us hear the Scherzo very much as the first movement's counterpart and justify the placing of this movement second. In his "Fanfare" interview he also made reference to this movement showing Mahler "whipped, chased, prosecuted ... as we know, in Vienna his position was under threat, and his basic situation was just the same even in New York...." (Essen's relentless steam hammers and glowing smithies are what I was made to think of too.) What Sanderling doesn't do is what Tennstedt and Levine, among others, does and thatís to make rhetorical jabs and jerks that might just thrill on first hearing but soon become deeply tiresome on repeats and detract from the classical detachment the piece demands to make the modern tragedy tell. I liked the huge smash from the tam-tam just before the music ratchets down to final, uneasy rest where the dying woodwinds are at their most foul and poisonous.

The Andante maintains Sanderling's classical detachment by not giving in to sentimentality or sheer bathos. Tempo-wise here is a true Andante with none of the consolation offered by a slower tempo and, in my experience, only Szell's recording is quicker. That isn't to say thereís no emotion but what emotion there is arises from the way the movement fits with the overall scheme and stresses symphonic argument. Sanderling believes this himself. In his interview he sees this movement as "the other side" of Mahler's life to that depicted in the Scherzo. So if, for Sanderling, the Scherzo represents Mahler "whipped, chased, prosecuted ", the Andante becomes, to quote him again, "summer at Toblach, and again music of withdrawal, escape from reality. It speaks to us very directly of nature, God, the world, and again I view this as a sublimation of Mahler's entire personal aesthetic. The things of which he speaks are of the eternal reality, and not of the kind of society and the pressures he had left behind him in Vienna." Note that "eternal" reality. The idea of Mahler standing as a universal. So Sanderling means us to contrast the Andante with what has gone immediately before and, in my view, connect it with the cowbells episode of the first movement because he also says in his interview that that episode is "essential to the dramaturgy ...a moment of retreat from the world, and a detachment from actuality. The same sublimation is found in the Andante." He further weaves the symphonic structure together with this idea and provides the Andante with the role of a more extended interlude of contemplation which would, I think, not work if the movement was taken too slowly or given too much dramatic weight which is what happens disastrously under Sinopoli.

For me it's Sanderlingís delivery of the last movement that clinches this recording's worth. The other movements were leading to the kind of interpretation I was hoping for but even I find myself surprised by how satisfied I am with it and remain so for this revision. I think what is wanted in the last movement is a drama in which tragedy is measured by the degree to which we are able to see how far the hero falls, otherwise we have no reference for how bereft he is going to be when all is taken away. This relates back to the circumspection of classical tragedy because only by seeing Oedipus "in the round", at the height of his power, are we able to comprehend the depth of his fate as Tragedy overwhelms him and then feel the release of Catharsis. For the last movement of the Sixth this means hearing the movement as 1) firmly attached symphonically to the previous three to give "framing" and 2) within itself an allowance by the conductor of what small moments of light there are to come through before being snuffed out. For all that the fourth movement can still be said, as liner notes author Quirino Principe has it, to be a depiction of "total chaos" it is, in fact, a carefully organised sonata form which imposes a fierce order to the chaos - not such a contradiction in terms as you might think. Each section of the sonata form is signalled by the violins' upward sweep, the fate motif on timpani and Floros's "major-minor seal". This is then followed by passages for bells. In each case Sanderling conveys a sense of arrival and a feeling that here indeed are "way points" that give the movement symphonic coherence and further relate it to the wider argument by making the bell passages recall the sound-world of the Andante and the cowbell passages in the first movement. The intention seems to be to take us into the mind of the hero and make us see his view of the world. Then, in passages of release and energy, like that between the first two hammer blows where the "whip" is deployed for the only time, there is a real sense of buoyancy too. Here is a man of action, "in full leaf and flower" as Alma described Mahler. Not one who is weighted down, as so often depicted especially by Tennstedt, but one still realistically believing he can escape Fate. So, when the second hammer blow comes, the sense of negation is enhanced. The same applies to the towering passage up to the place of the last blow where, among roaring brass and hammering percussion, a quickening suggests desperation: the last throw of the dice, all or nothing, with Sanderling also bringing out once more the martial quality in the music along with a wonderful ear for balance. You can certainly hear everything, especially what the busy strings are doing. The hammer blows themselves are nothing special in this recording. But such is the preparation that what we get is all that's needed to make Mahler's point, and where the third blow should be it's as if exhaustion brings the world crashing down finally. The coda is masterly in that it is slow, solemn and withdrawn - as much an elegy as a requiem, a fermata stressing loss as well as despair. When the final crash comes thereís restraint observed that doesn't make you jump like so often and Sanderling manages to get the slightest decrescendo into the timpani's final statement. I always feel Barbirolli spoils the ending by getting his timpanist to underline each note rhetorically and have the final pizzicato note follow a pause. I think the damage to our hero has already done by this point and the final sounds we hear should be those of an inevitable coup de grace, which is how they sound here.

A great performance will shine through the worst of sound but it's always good when the recording is of top quality and suited to the kind of performance it records, as it does here. Thereís some reverberation, just enough, but the heavy brass and percussion emerge clean. It's also good to be able to hear when woodwind and brass sound together and for the bass drum to make you shudder without making you jump. Itís not a pretty sound, but pretty is not what we want ?


Earlier I referred to it being appropriate that the 1906 premier took place in Essen, the cradle of German industry. The liner notes to the Gunther Herbig recording on Berlin Classics (0094612BC) fascinatingly quotes a review of that premier that actually named the Sixth the "Krupp-Sinfonie". Unlike a lot of issues from Berlin Classics and its parent company Edel this Herbig recording is not a reissue but a "live" performance given in Saarbrücken by the Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1999. Like many "live" performances it gains markedly from the feeling of "concert hall theatre" but with very few of the drawbacks. There are very few mistakes in the playing and the audience is well behaved and attentive. Herbig allows the music of the Andante to unfold without mannerism superbly. Under Herbig, however, there is an ounce or two more feeling that just evades Szell, for example. Interestingly, both also leave out the first movement exposition repeat and you need to be aware of this when considering Herbigís recording. Whatever the reason for leaving the repeat out, I donít think losing it damages Herbigís performance. His view of the first movement, though not without lift, is on the determined side and not hearing the repeat adds to the performanceís sense of "getting on with it" which brings its own dividends.

In the first movement the overall approach to tempo seems to me to satisfy Mahlerís apparently ambiguous demands. It possesses both the forward momentum of the "Allegro energico" but just enough trenchancy to cope with the "ma non troppo" that in turn allows the German sub-heading "Heftig, aber markig" ("Vehement, but pithy") to really tell. The latter is, of course, more a "mood marking" than a tempo marking and Herbig seems to read Mahlerís intentions with a rare and potent intelligence. There is a confidence at the outset of the journey towards tragedy that is compelling. What is more remarkable again is that the constituent parts of the Exposition fit together seamlessly with the "Schwungvoll" marking for the second subject "Alma portrait" weighted just enough to let the passage emerge with nobility but not hold up the progress of the argument. Note here the excellent balancing of the orchestraís sections so that the woodwinds against the brass really sound distinctively edged. Contrapuntal detailing everywhere else is clear too Ė celesta, woodwind alone and percussion taps. Then in the Development Herbigís delivery of the pastoral, cow-bell-accompanied central section is cool and glacial, a ghostly pre-echo of the opening of the fourth movement showing Herbigís grasp of the bigger picture. Note too the plangent woodwinds and the solo horn: expressive but within bounds. This particular passage stays in the mind, which it has to since it is one of the few times in this symphony when real, uncomplicated light is let in on the gloom before the march imperative returns for the Recapitulation. This latter is made more terrible here by the way Herbig makes it seem to "mirror-image" the Exposition. But after that the Coda is optimistic again. Launched from the wonderfully heavy brass comes a message of hope not despair. As you can tell, Herbig in fact covers a long a wide span of feeling.

The scherzo is placed second and the main material has the same energetic thrust of the first movement but with the same accompanying downforce to take in the "Wuchtig" ("Heavy") marking Mahler asks for. Again the balance by Herbig is true. The trio sections with Mahlerís ironic marking "Altvaterisch" (literally "Old father-like" or "old-fashioned") have the kind of mordancy that put me in mind of Otto Klemperer. Even though Klemperer never conducted this work I wonder if these passages would have sounded a little like this if he had. Herbig also attends to the special rhythmic games contained in this movement. All the little jumps and skips Alma Mahler maintained were her small children playing in the sand are delivered well, but Herbig doesnít use too heavy a hand on them, like Levine or Tennstedt. As always, Herbigís judgement is appropriate. However, this does not stop him making his brass players reach down into the murky depths for those extraordinary passages of Berg-like pre-echo. Thomas Sanderling is even more remarkable in this movement. Blessed with the finer orchestra he manages to project an even weirder experience overall. But Herbig comes close.

In the Andante we have one of the quickest accounts on record, almost as fast as Szellís. This music is always just a step or two short of kitsch and it takes a firm hand like Herbigís to stop it descending into it. For an example of how good this movement sounds under Herbig I would point to the central climax which is intensely moving for its simple honesty and complete lack of overheating that makes me admire Herbig even more. Here is a fine example of a conductor who is self-effacing enough and confident enough in the music to let the music make its own effect Ė the art that conceals the art. The cowbells recall the first movement and there is a lovely "outdoor" feel all through. Played like this it all emerges as a simple "song without words" with kinship to the "Kindertotenlieder" and more than enough respite from the fray of the rest to give us pause for reflection before the final drama of the last movement.

Throughout the fourth movement Herbigís grasp of the symphonic logic that he has established from the first bar of the first movement never fails him. Each ushering in by the upward sweep of the violins of the unfolding four-part drama is almost as pointed as it is under Thomas Sanderling. In the extraordinary opening passage the clear and unfussy recording balance allows you to hear everything in proper proportion, as it does too in the passage at 237-270 after the second violin uprush brings in effectively the Development. This recalls near-perfectly the pastoral interlude back in the first movementís Development section, so stressing symphonic logic again but also with the nagging, worrying interpolations of new fourth movement material. This way Herbig also communicates Mahlerian kaleidoscope. The build up to the first hammer, which comes almost straight afterwards, takes place with admirable but unforced inevitability and the hammer itself is well-placed and distinctive. I also liked very much the way Herbig delivers the crucial "whipped" passage (299-457) with the right amount of lift and pressing forward. Tennstedt, for example, weighs this passage down far too much where it is crucial we have the effect that our "hero" is still alive and kicking, still with is head up.

Herbig and the orchestra give a towering performance of the Recapitulation up to where Mahler originally placed a third hammer blow but then withdrew it. There is power, the same clarity of attack in the playing there has been from the start, momentum too, and the realisation that this really is the heroís last throw. The heavy brass and percussion are balanced but do not overwhelm and the ascent to the climactic moment where the third blow used to be is broad and well paced. Following Mahlerís wishes Herbig accepts the Ratz editionís leaving out of the third hammer blow and vindicates that decision. All the damage is done by now and the ultimate, crushing negation is to come in the workís coda. Under Herbig this is veiled and drear, all energy and passion spent. The final percussion crash, followed by a mind-numbing delivery by the timpanist of the last appearance of the fate rhythm and its dumping of us poor listeners into cold oblivion, is absolutely shattering. Sanderlingís wind lines jut out with a touch more character and there is a degree more of the "Krupp-Sinfonie" about his performance. This may have to do with the fact that in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic he has the better orchestra and a closer-in recording to really bring out the modern feel. The playing of the Saarbrücken Orchestra for Herbig, however, is excellent throughout. Especially remarkable for the fact that this is just a single performance unedited. The recorded sound from the Saarbrücken Radio engineers is clear and detailed but there is sufficient air around the instruments to give the impression of being at the performance which fully deserves the enthusiastic applause it receives after a fitting pause. I know that some will find it performance too austere, astringent and those who put more of their own emotional baggage into the score. My advice is to get the Herbig and persevere with it because I am convinced this is the kind of recording that delivers its effect over time.


The Mahler Sixth conducted by Mariss Jansons was the first Mahler release from the LSO Live label (LSO0038). Over many years, the London Symphony Orchestra has built a fine reputation as a Mahler instrument. So I am glad that LSO Live caught this fluent, expressive, powerful performance on the wing from two concert performances in London late in 2002. Jansons is among those conductors who, I believe rightly, sees the first movement as containing more optimism than pessimism. By doing so this sets the tragedy to come later in its proper context and so makes its eventual arrival that much more terrible. Jansons manages this, like a select band of other conductors, by minding the classical symphony "shop" Mahler sets out in this movement. He does this by keeping his tempo "up" enough to allow things to move along with life and vigour, but held on course enough to make all the notes tell. Not for Jansons the world-weary drag of Barbirolli in this movement, but neither a swift "quick march" like Kubelik or Levi. The effect of all this is to hear the movement presented "all of a piece" with minimum changes of tempo or expression for each episode. It works, as indeed it does through the whole of Jansonsí performance. Iím sure there are some of you who will feel robbed of your beloved Mahlerian agony and torture at this early stage, but I think that would be inappropriate. Even the great second subject upsurge, the entrance of the lovely Alma, is contained, reined back; that is until a deft and very effective flourish in the lower strings pitches a singing line with expressive vibrato, flashing the ladyís allure as she turns away in a flounce of her skirts. Jansons can clearly spot the rustle of silk at fifty paces. He can also be aware of the press of the great events of this movement during the sublime interlude where cowbells and strings shimmer with enough lyric allure to throw us off guard but not be surprised when the martial music comes back with a vengeance. This is an impressive achievement, as too is the effect of all the threads being knitted together as the movement marches to conclusion. False optimism, perhaps, but optimism all the same. The detailed sound recording means everything is heard, woodwind especially pungent poking out of the texture, and propelling us to the, very upbeat, coda.

Mariss Jansons places the Andante second. I was surprised to find myself reminded here a little of the Seventh Symphony whilst listening. Not something I expected yet not so strange since both symphonies have kinship with the "Kindertotenlieder" which were contemporary with both. I suppose itís in the phrasing that Jansons adopts and most particularly the darker colouring he finds, certainly at the start. What Jansons certainly does do is keep the music moving; fully aware that this is not an Adagio. This movement is essentially a meditation on a very simple idea and repays a hundred-fold when the conductor applies a light touch, as Jansons does. I know that some prefer, again, more angst, more "heart-on-sleeve", but I firmly believe that this symphonyís classical nature is served better by some creative detachment.

The following Scherzo is suitably truculent with the ungainly gait marked but not underlined too much. There is some nice detailing made in the trio sections which make a fine contrast. Notice especially the LSOís strings in their carefully prepared slides. Again the detailed recording really helps; even in the densest textures everything is transparent. Sometimes the acoustic of The Barbican has been a definite minus to LSO Live releases, the Bruckner recordings by Colin Davis are a case in point. In this work, however, Tony Faulknerís balancing of the hall really works in the musicís favour right through. Mahlerís Sixth benefits from a close-in sound like this and gives it a brittle quality that it needs.

In the Sixth all roads lead to the fourth movement and any performance or recording really needs something special from conductor and players to crown the drama of this great work. In "live" performance recordings this is sometimes a problem because to play this thirty minute piece of such challenging dimensions after having played the preceding three, stretches the greatest orchestras to breaking point. I can only say that the LSO rises to the challenge and passes it with flying colours, compelling from start to finish. The amazing opening passage is brilliantly projected, balanced excellently by Jansons and his engineer and once the main allegro gets underway the powerful, driving logic behind Jansonsís conception becomes crystal clear - as crystal clear as the sound balance. Holding fast to the symphonic line, as he did in the first movement, the tension that Jansons conveys is palpable and never flags and you know that it comes from within the music, is not imposed from outside it. Time and again Jansonsís grasp of the long movementís geography pays dividends. Listen to how he stunningly relates the cowbells episodes here to those in the first movement and the Andante, knitting the drama together. But hear too at the passage leading to the first hammer-blow the way that the lower strings dig deep and, soon after, the magnificent LSO horn section cutting through the texture like thermic lances and then, immediately before the hammer comes down, the woodwind choir squealing for all they are worth before the hammer finally obliterates them. The sound of the hammer on this recording is, by the way, excellent. Not too loud, but loud enough to sound distinctive. There are just the two hammers, as Mahler finally decided, but the passage where the third blow used to be, leading to the great, dark coda is delivered with thrilling inevitability. Such profound inevitability is coursing through the musicís veins by now that a third hammer blow would have spoilt it, overdone it, and so damaged the great crash that brings the symphony to its final, horrifying whimper. Passion and power with a purpose - a lean and clean Mahler machine.


Just a couple of years after the release of this LSO Live version the then new Royal Concertgebouw Orchestraís own CD label also released a "live" Jansons Mahler Sixth (RCO06001). The two interpretations are, to all intents and purposes, identical. The principal differences are the slightly mellower sound of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the more reverberant acoustic of the great Amsterdam hall. Neither, for me, are reasons to prefer this version over that of the one on LSO Live and so it is that one I point you towards. In addition, the London Symphonyís more "caution to the wind" approach is more compelling.


With Michael Gielenís perceived credentials as an interpreter with head and heart set in the twentieth century I have to say I was mildly surprised by some parts of his performance on Hänssler with the SWR Symphony Orchestra (CD 93.029) as it isnít quite what I expected. There are certainly more examples of what one might describe as personal involvement here than there are in previous symphony recordings of Mahler that I have heard from him. In the first movementís second subject, a portrait of Mahlerís wife, is buoyed along with all the Schwungvoll that Mahler could ask for but also by some unashamed rubato that certainly raised an eyebrow from this reviewer. However, never let it be said I should base a review on what a performance is not rather than what it is. What you get overall in the first movement is a concentrated blend of very grim determination laced with yearning nostalgia. Gielenís overall tempo choice is slower than many colleagues, which certainly gives him chance to make sure everything is heard very clearly but it does lack something in energy. The exposition is full of incident, however, and more than justifies the repeat. Along with the very moulded Alma theme, notice too the plangent high woodwinds and the very low brass. This exploration by Gielen and his engineers of every register of the orchestra will be a mark of the recording right the way through and is certainly one of its plusses. Not least in the pastoral/mountain interlude where the cowbells are perfectly placed to add a cold, unforgiving air against the shimmer of the strings. The whole effect of Gielenís delivery of the recapitulation is then an emphatic statement that life goes on in spite of everything and that clear impression carries into a quite hedonistic treatment of the coda. Not one that has any hint that there is tragedy bearing down on us. Alma Mahler remarked that when he wrote the Sixth, Mahler was "in full leaf and flower", which is exactly the impression gained here from Gielen. True, there are demons, forces working against our hero, but he is on top of them at first and there really is nothing to knock him off course. Here is a fully thought out performance by a conductor who understands only too well the implications of this movement.

Gielen is good at "ugly" and the Scherzo, placed second, shows this again. The overall tone of the movement, its general gait and delivery, is as real counterpart to the first movement so what we hear is again very grim and nostalgic at turns. The main scherzo material echoes the first movement march and then the mood is lightened by the altvärterisch trio sections that Gielen delivers with a halting, awkward quality that is never grotesquely twisted out of shape. Indeed much of the effect of these passages is achieved by a nice contrast in tempo between the interludes and the main material. The tension doesnít really flag and the movement hangs together mainly because again the detail in the score is attended to well. Anything slower than this and there may have been a problem. As expected, those twentieth century sounds, those Bergian "pre-echoes", are attended to by Gielen, as also is the sinister descent at the close. Unlike the close of the first movement, there is the feeling under Gielen that the skies are darkening at last.

The Andante is then given a rhapsodic, free-spirited performance that Gielen clearly sees as his last chance to show us our hero in happy times before the great struggle that will ensue in the last movement. In this Gielen tells us he is supremely aware of the true nature of tragedy. That only by showing us what the hero is losing do we appreciate his loss when it finally comes and placing the Andante third has always seemed to me to be fully in line with that. When the last movement immediately follows the restful dying away of the third Gielen then manages to deliver such a devastating impression of "as I was sayingÖ" that he fully justifies this particular inner movement order rather than the lesser played one of Andante second and Scherzo third. Note in the opening pages, surely the most remarkable Mahler ever composed, the almost chamber-like filtering of textures with lower brass and percussion again impressing with the sense of looking ahead. Gielen then attends to every mood and facet of this movement. Unlike some he doesnít stress the tragic at the expense of the few passages of light that depict what is being taken away by fate as represented by the hammer and so achieves just the right balance for the drama. In fact it is a summation of all we have heard and felt in the previous three movements. The two hammer blows are clear and definite. Though they still sound like a very large bass drum being struck, they have the right impact to depict negation. In keeping with the score edition he is using, Gielen rightly respects Mahlerís wishes and doesnít restore the third blow. In fact so well does he present the passage where once there was a third blow that this is one of those performances where I am certain a third would have been excessive, as Mahler concluded. Is this fate playing a cruel trick on us, we ask? Just when we are expecting it to batter us for the last time, it doesnít. By now the damage is done and the final, shattering verdict is saved for the very end.

You will gather that I rate this performance very highly. It is as if Gielen feels freer in this work than he usually does in Mahler to involve himself more, to be a little freer with his interpretation, more emotional. Hence the slightly larger-than-life Alma passages in the first movement and the fiercer emotional contrasts inside the Scherzo and between the ugly Scherzo and the beauteous Andante. The last movement also has profound contrasts on display. The orchestra responds to Gielenís every demand too. This is a Mahler Sixth to go into the collection of all those who recognise this symphony as one of the profoundest statements on the human condition in music. Where man meets fate and the nineteenth century meets the twentieth.


Another of the recordings on one disc is by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yoel Levi on Telarc (CD-80444). What Levi does in the first movement is what will make or break this recording for many. He launches his opening march on the fastest end of the scale, seeming to take Mahler's "Allegro energico" only as his motto. So what we hear is a hyper, almost manic impression. If this isn't problem enough thereís no Exposition repeat to counterbalance. (It is no secret that a version of the first movement with Exposition repeat was made at the sessions but never released.) There are two things to be said about this. If itís the case Levi doesn't include the repeat out of artistic choice we can be sure his intention is to deliver a very particular, radical view of the movement. If, however, the repeat is missing so as to fit the work on one CD that doesn't apply. I will assume the former and go on to speculate that Levi wants to stress that the tragedy at the core of this symphony does not overwhelm the hero until the last movement. In which case the first movement in this interpretation really does emerge as a portrait of a man of action and vitality before all is taken from him. There are even moments of joy under Levi but I'm not sure whether that isn't going a little too far in the opposite direction to too much tragedy from the start. An interesting idea all the same. I don't usually take to fast first movements. I think a more concentrated, heavier tempo for the main march is needed as Mahler himself adds the word "Heftig" otherwise the march fails to ingrain itself into your mind and haunt you right the way through the symphony. Full marks to the orchestra for hanging on, though.

The Scherzo forms a fine counterpart to the first movement. This is less controversial because a performance like this would have fitted a performance with a more conventional first movement. I was impressed by the Altvaterisch trios which are played "straight" with no artifice or emotional "pulling about" but also have a nice "lift" to them. When the main material resumes the contrast is suitably stark, very like that which Levi makes between the main march in the first movement and the pastoral sections. Here the, now broken-backed, march still gives the impression of a man of action now impeded by thoughts of distant tragedy not yet upon him. I also liked the Andante third movement under Levi. Itís the haven of peace it should be but retains the right amount of uneasiness: a stoic reading with care to the weight of the climaxes which emerge with a purity of utterance that is moving.

The last movement is the most conventional but it's possible to say Levi misses an opportunity as I wish he had had the courage of the convictions he showed in the first movement and gone for broke with the kind of last movement that complimented it. Under Levi the structure appears undermined a little by a deliberate, dark (impressive on its own) interpretation of the introductory material in the three sections whenever it recurs. Thomas Sanderling links these sections back to the pastoral sections of the first movement and the cowbells in the Andante, a remarkable piece of symphonic planning that seems to be outside Levi's ken. The build-up to the first hammer blow is bold and unafraid and the way the woodwind hang on like grim death, squealing plangently as the hammer comes down, is exciting. The hammer itself is bold and very deep. I like a more precise, placed sound but thereís no doubting the blows are there. The build-up to the second blow is even more towering. Almost a "Hammer Horror" hammer horror! All in all, apart from the deliberate tempo for the three "music from far away" sections, I cannot really fault Levi in this movement. The recorded sound is big and spacious. Lots of air around the instruments in a concert hall balance with good detailing of the soloists. The big moments are held by the recording with ease and no "crowding" on the ear. When the orchestra is going full out you are aware of everything, every level of frequency. So an interesting sound for Mahlerís Sixth. This version makes it into this survey by the narrowest of squeaks because I think, in spite of reservations, Levi is on the right lines and makes us ask questions of the music and I applaud him for that.

Also on the right lines is Pierre Boulez with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG (445 835-2) who also manages to fit the work on to one disc but this time with the first movement repeat. This is a very refined performance indeed, one that fulfils all the criteria of classically-contained drama I prefer but, in the final analysis, one that marginally fails to deliver a lasting impression. On its own I admire it greatly. In comparison, I find myself with some doubts, wishing I was listening to others. But I draw it to your attention, not least for the excellent playing of the Vienna Philharmonic and the opportunity to hear Boulezís view of this crucial work in twentieth century music.

A truly great recording of this work is one by the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos "live" at Carnegie Hall in 1955. Unfortunately this is only available as part of a very expensive multi-disc NYPO commemorative box called "The Mahler Broadcasts" but is the one performance in that box that cries out for individual release. Iím still using this survey to make a strong plea that the orchestra authorities contribute to the Mahler discography and licence it to one of the major companies as the remastering engineers have certainly done it proud. One critic described this as a "dramatic, intense reading of molten heat and energy" and I wouldnít disagree with that. Mitropoulos was a Mahler pioneer who gave the first American performance of this work in 1947 and itís extraordinary to hear this performance when you consider that it predates all but the earliest released versions by Charles Adler and Eduard Flipse, both of which are available on compact disc still and deserve to be heard, even though I am left with the impression that even the 1950s were early days in the consideration of this forward-looking work. The playing by the New York Philharmonic for Mitropoulos more than justifies their reputation as one of the great Mahler ensembles and proves beyond doubt they could play Mahler magnificently long before Leonard Bernstein came along and usurped his old mentor.

The first movement begins with another superbly weighty yet also forward moving tempo, each element of the exposition crucially integrated: energetic yet reflective at the same time, classical structure maintained with expressive contours. Alma is urgently conveyed with a real sense of the "Schwungvoll" ("Gusto" or "Spirited") Mahler asks. There is no exposition repeat from this era but Mitropoulos has invoked such a sense of the "all-or-nothing" you feel you just want to press on regardless. He makes no apologies for the relentless quality to the march rhythm, of course, with really unforgiving percussion battering away at us so that the pastoral interlude with cowbells seems a welcome place to catch our breaths before the recapitulation pitches us back into the maelstrom which seems to grow out of the music. Mitropoulos proves, if proof were ever needed, that to keep the symphonic argument to the fore brings the greatest dividends.

This performance took place before publication of the workís critical edition so it reverses the usual order of the inner movements. Mitropoulosís cor-anglais soloist manages a fine lamenting quality at the start of the Andante, as does his solo trumpeter later with some nice vibrato, really idiomatic, charged in its nostalgic feel but absolutely part of the whole. Mitropoulos also maintains the link to the Kindertotenlieder song already noted and the whole movement is taken "in one" with just the merest assistance to the melodies from Mitropoulos. The central climax of the movement is absolutely overwhelming in its power but by virtue of its nobility. Then the scherzo is remarkable at the start for, as with the first movementís opening, great forward momentum matched with weight. The crucial trios find Mitropoulos aware of the various changes in meter that are there, bringing out that impression of children playing on the beach Alma Mahler has left us with. I also liked the perky woodwinds of the New York Philharmonic. All in all, Mitropoulos conveys the ugliness of this music without playing it in an ugly fashion.

It cannot be said enough just how remarkable it is to find that in 1955 an orchestra could give such a performance as this of Mahlerís then least played and most difficult work. The opening pages of the last movement under Mitropoulos show he has appreciated their importance but he never lingers over them, showing they must be seen as prelude of the titanic drama to come. Iíll say straight away that, for me, this is the finest performance of the last movement I know. Mitropoulos keeps such a firm grip on the symphonic structure, such a single-minded concentration on pressing ahead, that the drama the movement delivers seems to hit us head on, rather like the blows of fate the hammer delivers. Note the passage 237-270 which, in more than any other version, recalls the corresponding passage in the first movement and so knits the symphony together across the movements. Then, soon after, the astonishing contribution of the trumpeters as the first hammer approaches with the latter a real blow of fate - heroic ambition emphatically stopped in its tracks. Then the "whipped" passage between the first two blows also has to be heard to be believed. So towering, so thrillingly conceived and delivered, with the orchestra playing like things possessed. Likewise in the final assault leading to the place where the third hammer blow used to be there is the same feeling as with Sanderling of the workís "hero" going for one final throw before utter disaster. Too often we hear described the three blows of fate that fell the "hero". We never hear anywhere near enough of that which is felled, that which the hero loses and Mitropoulos seems aware of that. As I have said before, how are we to appreciate the devastating nature of what fate delivers unless we appreciate what it is that will be lost ? A man "in full leaf and flower", as Alma described Mahler at this time, must be depicted in this movement. Right up until the last note the orchestra never flags. In a studio recording this would be remarkable enough but in a "live" performance this has to be one of the great public recordings of anything, up there with Furtwänglerís Beethoven Ninth from 1942. If there is any justice this recording will become available singly at some point. If you cannot get the NYPO version by Mitropoulos but still want to experience this manís special view of the work look out for a Cologne performance on Living Stage (LS4035155). Not quite as compelling as in New York but still formidable in its own way and a Mitropoulos Mahler Sixth to treasure. This Cologne recording is the same one to be found in EMI's "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" series that featured Mitropoulos as well as the Music & Arts boxed set containing other Mahler symphonies conducted by him. (CD1021).

To the surprise of some I think Bernard Haitink a leading interpreter of this symphony and he has made two studio recordings of it for Philips and a "live" one in Paris for Naïve although this latter recording finds him below par. His second Philips version with the Berlin Philharmonic is very fine, but the presence of the Concertgebouw Orchestra on the earlier Philips and their much greater sense of Mahlerian tradition is even better. But, good though that is, I believe itís trumped by an even earlier recording with the Concertgebouw from a 1968 concert performance in a Philips commemorative birthday set available from Holland. As with the Mitropoulos recording itís a pity this is only available as part of a set so a single release, maybe at bargain price, would be very welcome. The first movement fulfils all my criteria for strict symphonic organisation and urgency matched to weight. I was also especially impressed by the wonderful playing of the orchestra "live" in their own hall, woodwinds particularly. In the second movement the younger Haitink also pays attention to the meter changes in the Trios that others miss and he matches them to the main material where the virtuoso playing means his quick tempo never loses touch with the musicís energetic power. In the Andante the sound of the solo trumpet against the return of the pastoral cowbells brings a perfect Mahler moment and makes me wonder why other conductors cannot realise this must be what Mahler had in mind here. Since Haitinkís delivery of the first two movements was quite brisk this means his Andante tempo makes this movementís poetry tell better in context. In the last movement excellent space is given to exploring many of the odd sonorities that Mahler experiments with. When allied to his energetic, "man of action" passages this brings us more than a hint of Mitropoulosís special drama. A splendid performance, then, well worth searching out and well worth Philips considering issuing alone. A case of a conductor not really adding anything more subsequent remakes, I think.


Let me draw your attention to another "live" recording much easier to find. This is by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on Sony (SBK 47 654 or 88697008132) and at medium price on a single disc is a good recommendation for those on a limited budget. Szell conducts a bleak, unforgiving first movement followed by an equally trenchant scherzo where, perhaps more than most, he finds true menace and grotesques. Szellís Andante is quickest of all and some may find this a problem. Admirable though I find Szell in taking Mahlerís marking literally, I feel he just misses the depth of feeling buried in this music. His finale finds the Cleveland Orchestra on top form and there is much drama and an unerring sense of inevitability to be heard. There are one or two oddities in the dynamic range over the performance as what was issued was the result of knitting together two "live" performances. The Andante especially needs to be played back at a higher level and even then sounds curiously different from the rest. However, for those on a limited budget and for those wanting an alternative, buy with confidence.

Also worthy of strong recommendation is Benjamin Zander with the Boston Philharmonic on IMP (DMCD 93). In the first movement there is exactly the same kind of single-mindedness as Sanderling. As if Zander has worked out that what matters here is a drama symphonically based and sharply argued, one that would be blunted by too much romantic indulgence. Note, for example, the splendid crunch on the opening double basses. Conveyed against a relatively brisk underlying tempo, this delivery of the march that will dominate this movement takes care of Mahlerís apparently contradictory tempo marking. There is weight, but there is also forward movement so when the fate motif on timpani crashes in it can stand the slightly held back nature Zander imparts to it. As too can the second subject "Alma Theme", beautifully coloured by the high woodwind shrieking from the texture. Zander is a fine example of the "less is more" philosophy that can bring such dividends. The development section finds some really sinister percussion in the close recorded balance which suits Zanderís detached treatment for the pastoral interlude with cowbells which has a really modern feel to it, as if Schoenberg is looking over Mahlerís shoulder. The whole movement is superbly held on course as also is the second movement Scherzo where, again, the lower strings really dig into their material trenchantly but keep the momentum going even through the "Altvaterisch" (literally "Old-Fatherish") trios which Zander pays the compliment of playing straight, without the kind of disfiguring jerks some conductors indulge in. Notice the presence of the tam-tam and also the various "wood-of-the-bow" effects the closer recorded balance allows you to hear. The descent at the close might not have quite the poison of Sanderling but its mixture of elegance and character pays dividend again.

I think Zander more than many, sees the crucial relationship between the third movement and the Kindertotenlieder song roughly contemporary with it. (Something, surprisingly, other conductors often miss or donít mark quite as much.) To get it right, as here, is to influence the whole mood and delivery of the movement down to a simpler utterance and one that, in the end, makes its particular sound much more moving. Thereís no "fat" on the music which is again placed the firmly in the twentieth century leading to the central climax clean and very pure. To overload this music with too much sentiment would be to spoil its vulnerability, a vulnerability swept away cruelly by the "return to business" ushered in at the start of the fourth movement.

The excellent liner notes to this recording make the point that the opening passage of the last movement is amongst the most remarkable music Mahler ever wrote and Zander certainly seems to reflect that, again seeming to have thought very deeply about what is going on. The emphasis is on expectation that something important is going to happen, a feeling that must have been added to by the fact that this is a recording of a "live performance". The build-up to the first hammer blow is carefully prepared and the arrival of the first blow itself allows us our first opportunity to hear what are, for me, the finest realisations in any available recording of these "percussion events" which are achieved here by a length of pipe being struck on a timpani case. As if to show off how good they are Zander is one of the few conductors who restores the third blow along with the original orchestration. Though I do wish he had followed Mahlerís intention for each blow to diminish in volume, a dramatic effect Richard Strauss was never able to understand but which surely makes wonderful psychological sense. With all three blows played this is something of an opportunity missed.

Zanderís Boston Philharmonic play very well. They are made up of professionals, semi-professionals and students, so donít have quite the deep corporate élan of the great international ensembles and this might rule it out for you. But here is a case of a lesser orchestra playing beyond themselves and what they might lose in sheer "heft" they more than make up for in commitment and I never complain when I hear that and so it squeezes in this time. I do prefer this first Zander version to his second one made in London with the Philharmonia on Telarc. Yet again, a remake, even with a better orchestra and with better engineering, fails to improve on the first attempt. In the Boston version Zander balances head and heart well. In London he cannot resist tinkering. If you fancy a wild card, try Zander but go for Boston.

A recording currently out of the catalogue is the one by Claudio Abbado and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on DG. There was a time when I actually admired this very much but, over the years, Iíve found it less satisfying. It was almost as if, for me, it had a "shelf life" and I had used it beyond the "sell-by" date. Nevertheless, itís a pity itís not easily available as Abbado does have a wonderful way with Mahlerís denser textures as well as being more than in tune with the general approach that I prefer. More than many conductors, he manages to organise even the heavier-scored parts of the work, the last movement especially, in a way that never leaves your ears tired. You may see the Galleria version (423 928-2) of Abbadoís recording in the bargain bins, so donít ignore it if you do. Abbado recorded the work again for DG, this time with the Berlin Philharmonic. As so often is the case the remake is nowhere near as good as the first attempt. The Berlin Philharmonic gives what sounds like a more than competent run-through which is what they often do in a composer that has usually eluded them and Abbado seems to have refined and refined the music and so robbed it of a great deal of its power. He should have left well alone too. Ivan Fischer, in a very recent recording made in Budapest for Channel Classics, has tendency to refinement like Abbado in Berlin but his orchestra seems far more at home with Mahler and this is a version that I really think might be a "sleeper" which in a subsequent revision of this survey might take a more prominent role. Too early to say at the moment..

One conductor who could always be relied on to deliver the most uncompromising of visions in Mahler when appropriate was Jascha Horenstein. At the time of the first version of this survey he was represented in the Sixth discography by a "live" recording with the Stockholm Philharmonic from 1966 never meant for release. (Music and Arts CD 785 coupled with Brucknerís Eighth and Mahlerís Ninth; or Unicorn UKCD 2024/5 on its own). But this symphony above all illustrates my long-held belief that no composer exposes the second-rate in orchestras more than Mahler and it was, with regret, that I had to report this was the case with the Stockholm Philharmonic. Time and again one could certainly discern the greatness of Horensteinís conception. But time and again he was let down by the orchestra from whom he asks just too much. Itís not just a question of a few fluffed notes or lapses in ensemble - these can be tolerated. Itís a general feeling of marginal slackness and lack of subtlety that gets in the way. I asserted that Horensteinís conception of this work should be in the top choices for recordings of this work because I knew of a recording made by him "live" with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1968 that was in the BBCís archives. Happily that recording has now been issued for the first time by BBC Legends (BBCL4191-2) and at last Horenstein can take his place in this survey.

Like all the greats, Horenstein had to dare to fail to succeed and he sometimes did simply fail, but the failures were more than outweighed by the successes which his growing recorded legacy testifies to. Not ever easy music-making. Horenstein was never an easy conductor to get to know. His was music making that was always challenging of the audience and the reaper of rewards only for those with more than half an ear to hear rather than just listen. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra of 1969 was a fine and versatile band. So when Horenstein stepped on to the podium of the, now demolished, Winter Gardens in Bournemouth (an indoor concert hall in case anyone not familiar with British musical life is wondering) he had before him an ensemble who were more than capable of delivering exactly what he meant in this work and the difference over the Stockholm version is stunning. You need to know that this is a mono recording. The BBC had not stretched to stereo in the English regions by early 1969 but this is well-balanced, firm and undistorted sound that will only displease the seriously audiophile listener and bothers me not one jot. What you will hear is all the details of this score in excellent, conductorís balance perspective, the screaming upper line thrillingly revealed, the depths of low brass sound malevolently present and every point in between in sharp relief.

Horenstein was the ultimate nihilist conductor. No one could project bleak despair across the drama of a work like he could, as can be judged by his recorded performances of Mahlerís Ninth. So it is with the Sixth. What is so remarkable about this performance is Horensteinís absolute determination to allow nothing in that detracts from the unswerving belief that this is a work about hope snuffed out. When you get to the very end, where the final statement of the cruel march rhythm first heard near the beginning and repeated throughout the work sends the hero to oblivion, you are aware this is what Horenstein was aiming at from the start, because he believes this is what Mahler was aiming for at the start too. In this way this is the most focused and distilled performances of this work I have ever heard and I doubt many conductors have the intellectual rigour matching great musicianship to both take this on board and deliver it so convincingly. Horenstein always had the ability to take in a work in its entirety and this is no better evinced as here. A brave thing to do, of course. Remember what I said about daring to fail to succeed. Take those passages where the mood seems to lift and there is light, lyricism and air to contrast all too briefly with the struggle, tragedy and mechanistic driving energy of this Kruppsinfonie. I am thinking of the "Alma Theme" second subject of the first movement, the pastoral cowbells and shimmering strings passages in the same movement recalled in the last, the brief celesta-accompanied tone painting towards the end of the first movement, the peculiar Trios of the Scherzo and the whole of the Andante. The overwhelming impression from the way he treats these passages is that Horenstein doesnít want them to have too much of an effect on us. He holds them at arms length by seeming to push them along at all costs. It isnít a case of his rushing these passages. There is a pressing-on, but not enough for you to be unaware of them. It is more that you are not going to be allowed to make any kind of emotional attachment to them. This way Horenstein seems to dangle them in front of us, to tell us we will never achieve the repose or comfort they promise, that our doom is already decreed by fate and so we may as well submit to it. Itís a remarkable aspect, moving and unnerving in its extraordinary honesty, and one he never forgets to mark when ever the need arises. This makes this performance so dark that you may only want to experience it on a few occasions.

More than any other Mahler symphony the Sixth is built rigorously around repeated use of particular rhythmic figures, thematic groups and chord clusters held together in a tight four movement symphonic form. The first movement is a strict sonata form but the last movement also has the most careful and easily discernable structural pillars. This is all gift to Horensteinís familiar ability to forward-plan with modular tempo that make sure the architectonic plates that are the structure of the work never seem to shift. If ever his gift for picking a more or less single tempo for a whole movement was going to work it would be in this symphony. So it is that the first movement manages a thunderous, heavy and dogged march that still keeps grinding away in our mind as Almaís second subject group sweeps in and out at around the same basic tempo, keeping that sense of creative detachment already mentioned. Likewise the coda to the first movement. There can be performances where the end of the movement seems to yell out a sense of triumph, albeit premature. Indeed this is often an aspect that is used to justify the placing of the Andante after the first movement rather than, as here, the Scherzo. Horenstein, by not playing for any triumph at all at this point, justifies triumphantly the edition of the work he is using: the 1963 Critical Edition by Erwin Ratz that bravely restored the inner movement order to Mahlerís original conception - Scherzo followed by Andante. After the kind of desperation coda Horenstein delivers, the assault of the Scherzo after the first movement sounds dramatically effective. The Scherzo itself is remarkable for some whip crack string playing that slices and slashes across the texture adding to a poisonous brew that not even the balm of the Andante will get rid of. The Andante itself is, as I suggested earlier, cool and clinical. It is also all of one minute faster than the Stockholm performance so HorensteinĎs aim seemed to be towards ever more classical framing. Rest for us the music certainly is, but it is an uneasy rest which is absolutely appropriate with what is to come. That is not to say that the simple presentation of the climax does not have the power to move. It moves because somehow Horenstein invests it again with the feeling that it is a transitory vision.

Earlier in this review I mentioned Horenstein daring to fail to succeed and the last movement illustrates this well. At over 33 minutes this is one of the longest versions you will hear. Horenstein and his players pull it off, but only just. The upside is that you can hear instrumental details and textures as though the score were laid out before you like a musical equivalent of a blueprint. The downside is that there are some passages where I would forgive anyone for thinking that the tension drops. The long passage between the two hammer blows, for example, could do with a bit more kick. But, as I also said before, Horenstein never made it easy for himself, or us, so a bit of perseverance is called for. The reward is a truly cathartic experience which is what this symphony should be in the end. The hammer blows are superbly placed, the chase to hoped-for triumph truly desperate, the crush of fate that much more terrible for being so grandly and spaciously stated, the great coda a fearsome dead zone all masked faces at a funeral as the mourners gaze into the grave. This is a major release from BBC Legends containing a Horenstein Mahler Sixth to grace the discography of this work at last. You will be involved, you will be moved, you will be unnerved, you will not be disappointed.


Let me draw your attention to another "live" recording this time by Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony on Audite (95480). This is a recording of the concert performance that preceded the DG studio sessions in 1966 that is now available in Kubelikís Mahler symphonies boxed set and is to be preferred. Kubelik's Sixth first movement has always raised eyebrows in that itís very fast. Not as fast as Scherchenís frantic, disfigured account on Tahra, but faster than most. Certainly it assists in stressing the classical nature of this most classically structured of Mahler first movements and therefore the nature of the Tragedy being enacted Ė Greek rather than Jacobean. It also makes us see Mahlerís "hero" prior to the tragedy that overwhelms him in the last movement "in full leaf and flower" and therefore corrective to those accounts that seem to want to condemn him from the start Ė Melodrama rather than Tragedy. Boxes ticked emphatically, then. The Scherzo is placed second and Kubelik reinforces the energetic rigour of the first movement admirably, as ever consistent and uncompromising to his own vision. So I find this account of the Sixth compelling and it ought to further remind us Kubelik was an exponent of 20th century music to a degree that is sometimes forgotten. The Andante is free flowing and unselfconscious and notice the nostalgic solo trumpet that is as echt Mahlerian as you could wish. Finally in the last movement few conductors suggest the menace and tension in the remarkable opening pages so well. The rest of the movement Ė essentially a sonata form structure Ė balances the first in being direct and sharp with the Tragedy not so much underplayed as integrated into the structure. As so often with these performances, it is only less impressive when compared with some other versions. In the final analysis, though, I think more space, more weight, is needed throughout and at particularly crucial nodal points to really move and impress.


As before I donít want to end without considering at least one recording that allows for a more "hands-on" approach by the conductor. The one that still impresses me most is by Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on EMI (CDS 7 54047 2). From the start there is certainly greater darkness and more tragic weight than the versions so far considered. Note, for example, the way Rattle gets the basses to slightly drag their opening notes, even though Mahler marks them staccato. The slightly more measured pace allows an easy swing into the great Alma theme which, under Rattle, is more consciously moulded. Itís a great sound from the engineers, however, which is one of the many distinguishing features of this recording. In the Development Rattle is saved from any feeling of "sag" that his more measured march might bring by the fine playing of his orchestra but I miss the sense of light and dark interplay that I get with Sanderling, Zander, Mitropoulos and others, and even the interlude with cowbells fails to lift the mood of despair which I do think it should. Again, surely, the need is to contrast and really sharp contrasts at that. But I fully accept this kind of view will be more than to the taste of many listeners whose view of this work differs from mine. I did admire the power contained in what I can only describe as a sense of "downforce" when the Recapitulation brings back the march, for example, hammering home what is, for all my reservations, a superb performance of the first movement - darkly tragic, weighty, dramatic.

Rattle places the Andante second. Placed here his intense, highly emotional approach is heard to good advantage and many will admire this movement even more than I do. Rattle intervenes a lot and this certainly fits with the rest of his performance. Thereís some superb string playing to be heard as well, so this Andante emerges as one of Mahlerís greatest slow movements. Not something I think it should, but impressive and moving all the same as it just stays in touch with its Andante roots. (Which is more than can be said of Sinopoli who delivers an Andante that seems to go on for ever, more the hothouse of Wagnerís Tristan than the simple song without words of Mahlerís maturity.) The central climax under Rattle towers and even sees him speeding up in what sounds like a rush of blood to the head. Then the Scherzo brilliantly reverts to the mood of the first movement but in order to make Mahlerís vision more uncompromising this really should have followed the first movement as the critical edition demands. Placed here I think it blunts things rather. But, again, thereís nothing to stop us ignoring Rattleís intentions and programming our CD players accordingly. I admire Rattleís conducting of the Trios, let me add. Perhaps more than anyone else, he brings out the changes in meter that are in the score, reflecting Almaís childrenísí games to a remarkable degree.

With what has gone before Rattle has no choice but to try to deliver a last movement on a massive scale and he doesnít disappoint. This is certainly a far less symphonic approach than it might be, though. Far more the impression Iím left with is of a huge tone poem: "Mahler Against The World", perhaps. Rattle does convey the sense of struggle superbly right the way through. Heís telling us a story in music, so this is the depiction of a tragedy rather than an essay on the nature of Tragedy: we live the tragedy rather than see it being lived. Rattle also restores the third hammer blow which confirms to me that his mind is really on dramatic effect leading him to override the composerís intention. But at least he observes Mahlerís wishes by having each blow diminish in volume. In sum, Rattleís is a superb example of a particular view of this work that doesnĎt topple into melodrama or self-indulgence. Still not one that I believe to be appropriate in the final analysis, but there if you want it The engineers certainly back him up superbly. Hear the wonderful sound of the basses plumbing the depths at the opening and the ease with which even the heaviest scored brass passages are contained. Right through the sound is rich, deep and detailed. One of the best sound pictures of this work I have heard. A leaner and closer sound - as with Sanderling, Zander and Jansons, for example - is, I think, even more appropriate, but there is no doubt Rattleís sound suits Rattleís performance which is also a fine example of his long relationship with the CBSO at its height. For me, this will always be my first alternative view performance of this work so I recommend it to you over that of the recent Eschenbach version on Ondine, for example, which I looked forward to hearing having heard glowing reports of but, in the end, was left disappointed. With Rattle, even though I did not agree with his interventions, I could see more logic to them. With Eschenbach, superbly as the Philadelphia Orchestra play and are recorded, I was left not quite understanding what he was trying to convince me of. That Mahlerís Sixth is a great work? Well, I think I knew that already.


There are still two versions to go that I want to deal with in detail and both are special case recordings but for completely differing reasons. Should anyone think classical music has little or no relevance to todayís world let them read the first page of the liner notes for the recording of Mahlerís Sixth by Michael Tilson Thomas (Avie 82193600012 or SFS Media 821936-0001-2). "This recordingÖ was made during the San Francisco Symphonyís concerts of September 12-15, 2001 and captures a collective response to the events of September 11th. The performance of this music, planned long before that day, helped all involvedÖ gather their thoughts and emotions as they attempted to come to grips with chaos." Later the same writer says: "Ö though moments of transcendent beauty unfold at its centre, this symphony offers no simple answers". Well it certainly offers no easy answers, that much is true. But the end-message of this work is quite unequivocal, leaving us nothing but disaster and loss of hope. "Lifeís a bitch, then you die," as Mahlerian Deryk Barker summed it up. So of all the symphonies to find yourself conducting and playing in America on September 12th 2001 Mahlerís Sixth must be the one you would have wanted least, or so you would think. At the end no balm, no comfort, no consolation, just tragedy. There even seems a particularly malevolent force at work in the world of coincidence to have allowed this to happen. If it had been possible would there have been a temptation to change the programme for something easier on the emotions, I wonder? I think it says much for the courage of Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and their audience that they opted to go into the abyss anyway, four times in fact, when turning away from it must have been what they really wanted to do most of all. It also says much for the integrity of Tilson Thomas that in no way does he seek to lighten or assuage the appalling message this symphony imparts. Alma Mahler tells us that Mahler himself was so terrified by the meaning of this work that at the first performance he conducted it badly. Tilson Thomas does not follow Mahler. He conducts it superbly and gives us a Sixth to compare with the very best on the market.

Yet maybe there was something that the audiences at those performances last year took away that was relevant to what was uppermost in their minds on those four nights. Something that did indeed help them "come to grips with chaos". It lies in the nature of tragedy itself. This is Mahlerís "Tragic" Symphony and Classical Tragedy, as mounted by the Greeks, depicts the struggle by characters on stage against uncaring, unforgiving fate that in the end destroys them and in the audience produces identification and, so the theory goes, a purgation of the emotions engendered. It is this catharsis, this emotional bloodletting, that is the central aim of classical tragedy and Iím sure the aim of Mahler in his Sixth and it is surely that which can be relevant to times of great trial. Rather than turn away and seek short-term comfort it is more worthwhile to face someone elseís tragedy "one step removed" so that you come to accept the inevitability of lifeís darkest side and so become stronger. As with a play on a stage, so with a symphony on a platform.

It would be interesting to know if this feeling of having been emotionally purged was the feeling of members of the audiences in San Francisco last September after these performances. If that were so they would certainly have been helped to come to grips with chaos and in one of the oldest ways known to creative art and human history. This is why I maintain that the greatest performances of the Sixth are the ones where the conductor seems to stand a step back from the action. Where the listener hardly notices an interpretation is taking place. Where interpretation is, as one great pianist recently put it, no more noticeable than the salt and the pepper should be in a great dish. Not intervening too much, not forcing the music into a radically different shape from the one that presents itself on the page and thereby almost mimicking the idea of watching something that isnít real, a drama being enacted. Tragedy, not Melodrama. I certainly believe this is what lies behind Mahlerís stricter use of the old classical symphonic form in this his first four movement, one key symphony, complete with exposition repeat. His way of telling conductor and audience he has something much subtler in his mind: a helping hand to enable the drama to be framed like classical tragedy frames the actions of the mortals on stage buffeted by fate. But I think it also demands the conductor doesnít overlook the extraordinary energy and vigour that is as much a part of this work as the black hand of fate that wipes our hero out at the end. This must be a symphony that seems to touch every base. How else can we appreciate the magnitude of our heroís fall if we are not first shown where he has fallen from? How else can we appreciate his loss if we are not shown first what he had to lose? With some conductors you know they are waiting for those hammers. With others you feel the catastrophe has already happened before the opening bar of the first movement. But with the best ones - Sanderling, Zander, Mitropoulos to name three - you get the broader picture, the light as well as the dark, life as well as death. In all, Mahlerís Sixth should enhance life as well as deny it and by so doing enrich our sense of what it is to live before denial comes. "Live every day as though it was your last," Mahler seems to tell us here.

Does Tilson Thomas deliver such a view? Overall I think he does. Letís consider the slow movement first. In this recording itís placed third in order, as it is in the critical edition. Tilson Thomas is spacious here, two minutes slower than Thomas Sanderling or Michael Gielen, for example, and there is about his delivery of the music a real sense of nostalgic elegy, a looking back to a better time. Thomas Sanderling opts for a cooler, more poised "song without words" which, in the wider context of the whole work, is probably more appropriate as it is closer to what Mahler asks for in his Andante marking. But there is no doubting Tilson Thomas is convincing in his own way. This is the one major part of the performance where I felt that he was responding to contemporary events as there is a very deep and melancholy feel to the withdrawn, intimate passages especially that is very moving. The emotional climax of the movement shows another side altogether, however. It has great stoicism, great dignity and a surprisingly optimistic tone. The impression I have is that this has now become music of light not dark, so making the arrival of the last movement that much more terrible. It would be possible to use this movement to wallow in self pity but whilst Tilson Thomas does seem to want to touch our feelings he still maintains a discernible balance between head and heart that is impressive both in itself and in the wider context.

Energy and weight combine in the opening march passage of the first movement. A tempo approach to suit Mahlerís marking that both carries forward thrust and downward force. Reconciling apparently conflicting demands of tempo will always be a problem for conductors in this movement but Tilson Thomas seems on top of the case. There is also a bitter taste to the woodwindsí sour contributions even in the short interlude prior to the Alma Theme second subject and right the way through the superbly balanced sound allows these fine players to really cut through the texture. The Alma theme itself broadens, but since the basic momentum has been forward moving it sits perfectly in what is a near conventional sonata form exposition with repeat. Indeed Tilson Thomas seems more than aware of the importance of this symphonic imperative in the movement. The development shows his grasp of the marchís true importance. Notice the real stress on the percussion, precise and placed and with some arrogant swagger. Then in the cowbell interlude the change in mood is well achieved but never stops the action completely. Though he takes things to the limit. We have only turned our backs on the press of events, you see, they havenít stopped altogether; our attention has just been deflected. There is some lovely detail here in woodwind and the high tremolo violin daubs that the natural recording allows us to hear clearly. The recapitulation then has a fierce inevitability, driving home the message with the Alma theme recall prior to the coda really sung out. It is hard to imagine a better first movement than this.

In the second movement notice the cracks of the timpani, superbly balanced into the texture so that the uneven gait of the music the player has to indicate from the first bar is with us all the time. From the first movement we have inherited that bitter taste in the sour woodwind too. Then in the first trio it is clear again Tilson Thomas has studied the texture with a microscope so that he can render the fearsomely complex rhythmic turns with stunning confidence that his orchestra seems to revel in. It is this awareness of the rhythmic topology of the movement that so impresses here as it does with Sanderling even though the latter is a touch more sinister and bitter. The SFSO shows concentration of the highest order and a fine counterpart to the first movement. I suspect that the fact of this being taken from "live" performances has helped in some of the more daring effects.

There is a raw brutality to the timps crashing out the fate rhythm in the opening bars of the last movement and throughout Tilson Thomas is back in symphonic mode, the immense drama delivered with stunning immediacy and impressive reach, but with a real sense of the greater picture again. At no time does Tilson Thomasís grip on where the music has been and where it is going falter and his orchestra seem prepared to follow him into hell. In the final bars the timps just fail to quite penetrate and the last pizzicato note is just too emphatic, but these are small quibbles in a presentation of this extraordinary music to round off a performance that immediately goes into the top flight. The two hammer blows themselves are certainly distinctive but they appear to be just cracks on a large bass drum thus, I think, somewhat short-changing Mahlerís intentions, but Tilson Thomas is hardly alone in that. In fact he seems to have gone for musical effect rather than sound effect.

I listened to it this new recording in standard CD stereo sound so I cannot comment on what it sounds like in "Surround Sound" or two channel stereo, both of which are also available on this SACD pressing. What I heard is rich and detailed with plenty of impact. There is air around the instruments also but not so much that you lose them in it. The feeling is of a good seat in the middle of the hall, on the front row of the first balcony. A Mahler Sixth Symphony with contemporary resonance superbly played and recorded that competes with the best. Since first hearing this when it came out it has grown on me over time. I still have reservations about the Andante but as an enthusiast for the concert hall as theatre the circumstances of its performance must carry weight for me and the performance is superb.


Which brings me finally to Sir John Barbirolli and the New Philharmonia on EMI. (CZS5 69349-2 coupled with Straussís Ein Heldenleben; or CZS7 67816-2 coupled with Straussís Metamorphosen) just as it did in my first version of this survey. Thereís still no doubt in my mind that this recording is utterly unique: a one-off, mould-breaking account that should be on every Mahleriteís shelf whatever other version they have. Iíve owned every version since it was released and cannot conceive of being without it. And yet I still think that it ultimately fails as a guide to this great work but as itís such a noble failure by a conductor of the highest integrity that it insists itself into any list. If you are going to orbit the moon then maybe the dark side of it has to be encountered at least once. The very expansive tempo for the first movement, with opening basses playing marcato rather than staccato, is a fatal flaw because it weighs down the music with too much tragedy at the point in the developing drama where it should retain liberal amounts of energy and fire and yet what a sound it makes. It also ignores completely Mahlerís express marking and yet what a sound it makes. The pastoral music with cowbells also sounds fatally earthbound. Itís all impressive on its own terms, though. Especially the way Barbirolli hangs on to it all like grim death, bringing out instrumental details other recordings only hint at. But still the effect is rather like that of an Edwardian actor manager "hamming" Shakespeare. As if Barbirolli is shouting at us all the time. There really needs to be some light let in here or the unremitting horror that Barbirolli seems determined to visit on us just becomes gratuitous. In the second movement there is another expansive tempo that goes with what has just gone and this, as in parts of the first movement, allows us to hear some more details usually missed: inner string harmonies, for example. Again, though, the effect too heavy-footed. The Andante works better, with Barbirolliís humanity and feeling showing through. The last movement at last takes fire but there is still not enough of the hero before the fall with which to compare the hero at or after the fall. As, to a lesser extent, with Rattle this is a long way from the symphonic argument I believe is demanded and which you will hear under Sanderling and others, and which makes Mahlerís tragic point much better. If Bernstein and Tennstedt turn a Tragedy into a Melodrama, Barbirolli takes a Greek Tragedy and makes it Jacobean. But hear other versions first, read up on the work, and then hear Barbirolli for yourselves. This EMI version is much to be preferred to the "live" Berlin version on Testament which is in mono sound, suffers from a Berlin Philharmonic whose interest in Mahler is always sketchy and is cursed with metallic hammer blows in the last movement. What was Sir John thinking of here?

There are many other recorded versions of this symphony available and from some great and renowned names. The Mahler Recording Factory Inc. (Shed No.6) has turned out a vast number of units, but only the ones "fit for purpose" need to be mentioned in detail. The rest must stay in the marshalling yard and take their chances with the elements. Solti is too machine-tooled and then hyper-charged to allow for darker shades to emerge. Maazel, Järvi and Von Dohnanyi deliver the notes but are largely empty vessels, all wheels and cogs but little worthwhile movement. Chailly, as so often in Mahler, is beautifully finished on the outside, but is all style and less substance. Karajan is chromium plated as usual, and thatís it. Leave them all under their tarpaulins. Long thought has convinced me that I have given you a profile of the recordings that will enable you to approach this grand and terrible work with confidence and hear it in the way that I think it should be heard to best advantage.

In my end is my beginning and I could just as easily close this revision with the same words I closed the first version and which I opened with here. The absorption of this symphony carries on. The best approach I believe still lies in its classical frame and its 20th century sensibility. Thomas Sanderling, Mariss Jansons, Yoel Levi and Michael Gielen are my main recommendations for performance and sound combined that unites all relevant elements. But do look out for Horenstein and Barbirolli for their particular, darker viewpoints. Try also to hear Mitropoulos and Tilson Thomas for the different concert hall experiences that are hotwired into interpretations still within my preferred musical parameters. Hans Zender and Boulez pin the work firmly in the 20th century. Go for Rattle for something more personally involved if you want that. Think Herbig for your reserve version. Try to resist the fatal embraces of Tennstedt and Bernstein for fear of the workís ultimate suffocation before your very ears. This last is not a view that many will agree with, I know, but it is the one that I retain and I will stick to it. As before, Thomas Sanderling is still the version that I personally reach for first. For now.

Tony Duggan

APPENDIX

Not yet available

 

Recommended Recordings

Thomas Sanderling with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (RS 953-0186)  Amazon UK Amazon US
Gunther Herbig with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin Classics (0094612BC)
Amazon UK Amazon US
Mariss Jansons with the London Symphony Orchestra LSO Live (LSO0038). Amazon UK Amazon US

Michael Gielen with the SWR Symphony Orchestra Hänssler (CD 93.029) Amazon UK Amazon US
Yoel Levi  with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Telarc (CD-80444) Amazon UK   Amazon US
George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra Sony (SBK 47 654) Amazon UK  Amazon US
Benjamin Zander with the Boston Philharmonic IMP (DMCD 93) Amazon UK   Amazon US

Jascha Horenstein with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra BBC Legends (BBCL4191-2) Amazon UK  Amazon US
Rafael Kubelik with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Audite (95480) Amazon UK  Amazon US
Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra EMI (CDS 7 54047 2) Amazon UK Amazon US
Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony (Avie 82193600012 or SFS Media 821936-0001-2). Amazon UK Amazon US
Sir John Barbirolli with the New Philharmonia EMI. (Either CZS5 69349-2 coupled with Strauss's Ein Heldenleben Amazon UK  Amazon US or CZS7 67816-2 coupled with Strauss's Metamorphosen)



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