Aureole etc.

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-94)
Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)
Petra Lang (mezzo)
Dallas Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Andrew Litton
Rec. live in the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Centre, Dallas, Texas, 10-13 September 1998 DDD
DELOS DE 3237 [2 Discs: 82’55]


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Litton’s Mahler 2 is a somewhat frustrating affair. It seems to be on the verge of being a great performance more than once, only to let itself down with niggling details that mar the overall conception. Litton is a charismatic conductor, with a theatrical American flair not unlike Bernstein and Tilson-Thomas, and his Tchaikovsky and Walton recordings are among the best in the catalogue. This Mahler certainly has a lot going for it, but against the sort of competition we now have in this work (as with most of the Mahler symphonies), nothing short of earth-shattering will do. This doesn’t quite get there.

To deal with the non-interpretative niggles first. This performance is now re-issued at mid-price, but comes on two discs. While most Mahler 2s are double disc sets, there are exceptions, the obvious one being Klemperer’s famous interpretation. This is, by any standards, one of the great performances of any Mahler symphony, and (like Barbirolli’s 9th) is available on a single, superb sounding mid-price disc (EMI Great Recordings of the Century). Decca have also re-packaged Zubin Mehta’s not inconsiderable VPO performance onto a single (80 minute plus) disc in their cheap ‘Legends’ series. Though maybe not a first choice for discerning Mahlerians, I always felt this was one of the best things he did early in his career, and the sound is still excellent. Whilst Klemperer and Mehta are both in outstanding analogue sound, there are digital bargains. The best of these (at least to my ears) is part of the under-valued Sinopoli series on DG. The whole cycle had many things going for it, and his ‘Resurrection’ was one of the best. It is now available on a DG Twofer, and is one of the very few versions with substantial couplings. It is a constant gripe of mine that pieces like Mahler 2, which usually come in at just over 80 minutes and are on 2 discs, do not have fillers to tempt buyers to part with the full asking price. The Sinopoli is not only in spectacular digital sound, but includes Brigitte Fassbaender in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, plus Bernd Weikl singing a selection of Lieder und Gesang aus der Jugendzeit (Songs of Youth), skilfully and idiomatically orchestrated by Harold Byrns. So this Litton performance is up against formidable mid-price competition, to say nothing of the full price ‘heavies’ (Rattle, Haitink, Abbado etc.).

Having mentioned sound quality, it is here worth mentioning another slight niggle. Delos recordings are generally exceptional, but this one is almost too wide-ranging for its own good. By this I mean that pianissimos are almost inaudible at times, while turning up the volume means that the big climaxes nearly blow your tweeters! It may have been cut at a slightly too low level (to accommodate large forces in that particular venue) and feels a shade recessed for my taste. This is entirely personal, but compared to Rattle, whose engineers have achieved the near impossible in terms of balance and sonic splendour, the Litton seems to have one reaching for the volume control a little too often.

On the musical front, there are many intelligent things to admire, though I was brought up a little short by his handling of the famous opening phrase. The violin/viola tremolando has plenty of crisp attack, but after the first C minor semiquaver run, Litton gives us a gaping pause, far longer than the bar and a half silence marked. More perversely, he then ignores Mahler’s actual pause marking after the second semiquaver run, moving on through it to the accelerando completion of this first phrase. It is a theatrical opening gesture, and I have no problem with dramatic license, but this merely becomes a mannerism, one that grows more irritating at each repeat of this phrase. When he finally settles his tempo, it is relatively steady (even compared to Klemperer), though his string section do him proud in really digging deep in to those hairpin dynamics that litter the score. I like the way he handles the subsiding downward scale figure at 5’35 in this first movement, and this heavy, funereal tread is certainly appropriate, though I am left wanting more light and shade overall, a feeling that we have shared the troubled journey that is this first movement. Litton isn’t as deliberate as Rattle in his handling of the staccato nosedive that ends the movement, but I’ve always liked this feeling of ‘arriving’ in the EMI version.

Litton’s subtle, somewhat restrained manner works well in the inner movements, especially the delectable andante moderato. This has the appropriate feeling of a blissful memory, and I very much like his pacing, which is not hurried but has a lilt and grace that seem just right. He launches with real gusto into the scherzo, but the sense of threat and unease that is present in Rattle and Klemperer seems somehow to be missing here; it is just a tad safe. ‘Urlicht’ is again a touch on the cool side for me, though Petra Lang’s beautifully controlled legato is a pleasure; her impassioned ‘Ich bin von Gott’ hits just the right emotional button, perhaps putting Litton’s approach into a correct context.

The massive finale, conceived on the very grandest scale, comes off well enough, though again a comparison with the best is not particularly kind to Litton. Everything is there, in place, very well played and sung, but I did not feel that awesome sense of cumulative power, of the sharing of a long journey that is emotionally draining. Klemperer has this feeling in spades, as does Rattle, and it is very difficult to pin down the problem. Maybe it is just all a bit too calculated, or maybe it is that slightly recessed, distant recording which leaves the listener at arm’s length. Whatever the case, I could not engage completely with this recording. I would maybe reach for it if I did not want to feel wrung dry by the end, but surely that is one of the reasons we listen to Mahler so much, to have the human condition laid bare for us, and feel we have shared in something only music can give us. For this sort of experience, I cannot recommend Litton in preference to Klemperer or Rattle, and given its price advantage, Klemperer would have to be my own mid-price choice.

Tony Haywood

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