Symphony No.2 in C minor
Ileana Cotrubas (Soprano)
Christa Ludwig (Contralto)
Vienna State Opera Chorus,Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Zubin Mehta
Decca Legends 466 992-2
Even though this recording was made in 1975 it was only the third time the
Vienna Philharmonic had recorded a Mahler symphony in a studio. For many
years Zubin Mehta only conducted the first five Mahler Symphonies as he was
on record as admitting he didn't understand the ones that followed. Don't
see this as a reason for being uneasy about his commitment to Mahler, though.
I think it shows a realisation that each Mahler symphony is different and
that some conductors are not suited to some of them. His Second is a contender
in a very crowded market not least for this re-issue being at medium price
on a single disc.
Mehta takes an admirably fleet view of the first movement, rightly stressing
the Allegro marking in a challenging and sometimes fierce conception. The
dynamics of the strings are brought out to the full at the start and right
the way through and even the lovely ascending secondary theme has a spring
in its step. At the opening of the first development the rapt lyricism of
the Vienna Philharmonic's playing is a joy also with air around the music
that seems to lift it on its way. In the approach to the catastrophic climax
that will being in the Recapitulation Mehta allows his tempo to drop down
for effect and then speed up prior to the crashing chords themselves which
emerge clean and lean. However, this is a point at which the character of
the sound recording makes its presence felt. It's a very compartmentalised
sound picture, not as rich in the bass as it could be.
An excellent account of the second movement then follows and Mehta really
understands how this music must take the "sting" out of the first movement.
The Vienna Philharmonic strings again play "to the manner born" so note the
cellos' playing of the counter melody at 86-132 for a real "Mahler moment".
At 29 Mahler writes: "Do not hurry" and Mehta observes this warning to great
effect so the marking "Energetically moving" that comes in at 133 makes an
even greater impression when delivered as sharply as this. Vivid timpani
strokes herald the third movement in which Mehta shows a feel for Mahler's
quirkiness with lyrical themes pitted against bitter interjections from brass,
snaps of the rute, and the unforgettable trumpet solo at the
core delivered beautifully. No one quite approaches Klemperer as an interpreter
of this movement for me, though. Only he seems to get the full measure of
this piece, not least in what Mahler described as the "Cry of disgust" that
marks a crucial "way point" towards the end. Mehta just fails to overwhelm
here, as I'm sure he should. This leads me to wonder whether what is missing
in this recording, as in so many studio recordings of this work, is the extra
element "live" performance brings in this above all of Mahler's works. As
the final note of the movement drifts away we are left with Christa Ludwig
to intone "Urlicht" which she does with a dark grandeur aided by a sumptuous
accompaniment from Mehta and the orchestra which I found impressive.
The last movement bursts on us well though a little more richness from the
recording again would have helped. However, one positive aspect of the sound
recording now becomes apparent in the distant horn calls - Mahler's "voice
in the wilderness" - that follows. The placing of Mahler's directional effects
- offstage horn calls and band music - is brilliantly done in this movement
with great care taken to create an aural stage between our speakers that
adds lustre to Mehta's performance. His account of the march (220-88) sees
him pressing forward but there is never any sense of rush. The weight in
the music is there, but I don't think he achieves the sense of explosive
tension that can build up as the movement reaches its two great climaxes,
the second preceded by that remarkable passage with the offstage band crashing
away, capping the first. Again Klemperer pulls it off, so does Bernstein
and Rattle. But I do like the way Mehta clears the scene with some magical
string playing prior to the "Grosse Appel" where offstage fanfares sound
against on-stage flutes signifying the last sound hear on earth prior to
judgement day. This is balanced superbly by the Decca engineers working in
their old haunt of the Sofiensalle in Vienna.
One major gripe here and it's something that has always annoyed me in this
recording. A double bar line separates the last chord of the flute and piccolo
on stage and the brass off stage from the entry of the chorus a capella.
Mehta, however, completely ignores this and has his chorus enter at the moment
the instruments stop playing. Apart from ignoring Mahler's marking this
completely ruins the wonderful effect Mahler was clearly aiming at and I
cannot understand why Mehta did this. A major blot on a key moment in the
whole work especially as the chorus sing magnificently with some wonderful
basses especially impressive. Mehta's sense of theatre does return as he
proceeds to the "Resurrection" coda that maintains the symphonic argument
but is grand and reflective in equal measure.
This is a fine studio version of a work that demands "live" recording. Mehta's
view is more in the Walter tradition in that he takes everything at face
value but is none the worse for that. The sound is not without problems.
Everything is contained with ease but there's a "manufactured" quality, which
troubles me even though it benefits from superb placing of effects. But the
presence of the Vienna Philharmonic is a plus, as is the fact that the work
is contained on medium priced disc.
see also Tony's comprehensive
survey of recordings of this symphony