Symphony No.3 in D minor
Nathalie Stutzman (Contralto)
Women of The Dallas Symphony Chorus
Texas Boys Choir
Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Andrew Litton
Delos DE 3248
It takes a particular breed of conductor to turn in a great Mahler Third.
Here is the whole of creation presented in music as a carefully graded series
of steps from primeval inertia to glittering perfection. No place for the
tentative and no place for the sophisticated. The greatest interpreters have
all knocked about the world and been knocked about by it - Horenstein, Bernstein,
Barbirolli, Adler. Litton gives every impression of not falling into this
category as what he gives us is an all too sophisticated, contrived and
ultimately rather complacent reading that makes me wonder if he really believes
in Mahler's vision or whether he isn't, in effect, rather embarrassed by
it. Attention never flags in the immense first movement and that's a major
achievement. But neither is there what you would call a style apparent, an
attitude, from Litton. Which means the performance is not, in any
real way, marked out for distinction from those of greater men who have gone
before. Rather that he appears so daunted by the forces Mahler's imagination
unleashes he has decided the best thing to do is get out unscathed which
he does and with much aplomb. But is "aplomb" appropriate in this movement?
A crucial passage is between bars 530 and 642 where the March that dominates
the animated sections does battle with the primeval forces to see who is
dominant. It should be the scene of abandon, danger and struggle. As Schoenberg
suggested, one between good and evil, perhaps. Under Litton it's just an
example of fine orchestral playing and sound recording where the level of
attack seems blunted. So often in other passages there is the feeling Litton
cannot bear to let things get too much out of control. The usually awesome
climax at 367-368 where the enhanced horn section is left bellowing at the
universe, Litton again "hangs fire.
The second movement has elegance and charm and seems to suit Litton's style
much more. I admire the way he responds to the tempo changes that are more
marked in this recording than is often the case. The orchestra responds well
to his lead also. Mahler wrote about the third movement: "This piece really
sounds as if all nature were making faces and sticking out its tongue. But
there is such horrible, paniclike humour in it that one is overcome with
horror rather than with laughter." A tall order for the conductor which only
the best come close to matching. Litton's animals all sound too Beatrix Potter
to me. The woodwind solos don't have the character of, for example, those
of the LSO for Horenstein. The lovely Posthorn solo is well brought off but
even here I thought Litton and his player go for the saccharine bringing
us music more suited to a candy advert. Then in the passages between the
two solos we are faced again with that problem we faced in the first movement.
There is no sense of the dangerous abandon this music needs for it to bring
us close to Mahler's "horrible, paniclike humour." There is also that crippling
habit Litton has of holding back when he should let rip which shows itself
especially in the amazing passage from 529-556, a crescendo from ppp
to fff followed by a diminuendo down to pppp that Mahler describes
as "the heavy shadow of lifeless nature".
Nathalie Stutzman has a full and verdant tone and fine sense of words in
the fourth movement. The problem is Litton pushes her and the orchestra along.
This movement must convey more of a sense of the mysterious than this. Following
this the boys sing prettily in the fifth movement but they sound too much
like the women who join them to be distinctive enough. The reading of the
great last movement that Litton then gives is sweet and intense to start
with. It is possible for the attention to be allowed to wonder unless the
conductor has a clear idea of where is has come from, where he is now, and
where he's going. The only aspect I'm aware of with Litton is a desire to
beguile the ear.
The orchestra plays well but doesn't, as yet, have the ability to convey
the idea they are reaching back into a real tradition of playing this music.
The sound recording is full and atmospheric with the slightest tendency to
smoothness that is a little disconcerting.
A reading that has enjoyable features but is some way short of greatness.
Litton's inability to shed the garb of the smart sophisticate and get his
hands dirty with this astounding music sees to that.
See also Tony Duggan's comparative review
of Mahler recordings