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Symphony No.2 in C Minor "Resurrection"
Petra Lang (Mezzo), Heidi Grant Murphy (Soprano)
Dallas Symphony Chorus and Orchestra
Conducted by Andrew Litton
Delos SACD 3237 (2 CDs) [82.55]
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I have already reviewed Andrew Litton's previous Mahler recordings with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The Fifth on Dorian (DOR-90193) was a re-issue and most disappointing. I also had reservations about the newer Third that is part of this continuing cycle from Delos (DE 3248). So I approached this Second with some apprehension. However, one thing I've learned about Mahler performances and recordings is that you cannot predict from one work how well a conductor will do with another.

Under Litton the first movement of the Second has a steady, very focussed opening with each note precise and then a tough, truculent feel as the exposition strides out. However, it seems to just arrive rather than leap out, grab you and shake you, as it should. There may be a number of reasons for this. The brass could be a bit wilder right through the movement, for example. They give us a very schooled and cultured response that in the spacious acoustic seems rather inhibited. Maybe in the flesh they have more impact. In the Exposition itself Litton is prepared to spread himself but not too much and that is a gain. The lyrical rising theme at the first development (117-128) has purity and poise that marks it out from the previous material but I wish the strings were balanced closer because the sound picture is generalised with a feeling of the listener being seated further back throwing space around the orchestra. This will prove an asset in some later passages but not in others, as is the case here. Then note at the end of first development (253) how Litton is almost skittish and then how he almost fails to allow the opening of the second development to really tell. This particular "way point", when we are plunged back into depths of grim questioning after glimpsing sunlit uplands, should be like an earthquake and isn't quite here. This nagging propensity to slightly underplay the big, dramatic, nodal points emerges as a shortcoming in this recording. At 270-294 the slow climb to the crisis recapitulation is well analysed by Litton, however. This is not a conductor who has embarked on this symphony unprepared, I do assure you. He has a real feeling for light and dark and he can make you aware of instrumental colour. The plunging climax (318-320) is delivered true and clean with weight for the great chords at 320-328 and here the recording distinguishes the parts well though other interpreters, notably Rattle on EMI (5 66867 2), make the awesome brass chords even more overwhelming than this. Litton then negotiates the rest of the movement with a nice line in awed creeping from strings and woodwinds. Though the movement might lack the last few pounds of passion and drama this is still a fine, intelligent approach especially strong on the lyrical passages though, as I say, shorter on drama and abandonment.

There is elegance and poise in the second movement with a nice minuet feel. Then at 133-209, marked Energisch bewegt by Mahler, Litton gets moving admirably. He uses a touch more rubato in the final part than some but not excessively and the orchestra is clearly with him producing some lovely sounds. The feeling I have been getting of a softer-grained feel to this performance is confirmed with the third movement. There is some bounce to the rhythms but I so miss the "off-the-wall" weirdness of a Klemperer here but then I do that quite often. Litton misses the "dirty" end of the music too much, as I feel he did in the Third. There is spite and bile woven into this but, as with his recording of the Third Symphony, Litton reminds me of a Rugby player determined to get to the end of the match without a speck of mud appearing on his shorts. The brass explosions don't impact as they can and should, well though they are played, but I must say the solo trumpet at the centre plays with fine vibrato and I had not really noticed the harp quite so well here either so well done to the production. The cry of disgust that climaxes the movement again doesn't quite strike home, though as the music winds down I was impressed again by Litton's feel for colour.

There is a wide and deep opening to the last movement. In moments like this the recording really delivers. The passage 43-97 where Mahler carefully assembles his material like a set of building bricks finds Litton superbly aware of the fantasy inherent. In fact this passage confirms for me Litton's strength in that department which makes me look forward to hearing his Fourth Symphony. The feeling I have is that the performance does improve from here on with a greater sense of abandonment, less the feeling of not wishing to offend. When the "On glaube" material comes at 97-41 though there is sufficient pleading quality I could have done with more drama, still more caution thrown to the wind. Some excellent deep brass then prepare for the great outburst 162-190 which really storms the heights with the recording catching the whole spectrum superbly. This is followed by the two great percussion crescendi that fill out the large acoustic space and in the great march we can at last hear the virtues of the spacious soundstage at its very best. I'm convinced this has hidden some of the intimate music before but now really comes into its own. What a superbly truculent march Litton and the orchestra give us here, really digging in for the long haul, nearer to Klemperer. Full marks to Litton from me for realising this is a marathon not a sprint. The collapse at 324 is huge and the tension sustained well through the passage that follows with the off-stage band excellently placed to make the novel effect Mahler surely intended. Litton keeps this passage pressing forward so when the second clinching climax-collapse arrives we are ready and grateful for the respite that arrives.

Again the brass are well-placed off-stage for the fanfares in the Grosse Appel and again Litton's sense of fantasy is well to the fore with his filigree painting of the bird flutes around them as good as any you will hear. The chorus is then not indulged and they nobly sing their first entry placed perfectly in the sound stage. The two excellent soloists are well positioned too and, like the chorus, sing superbly. Again Litton's sense of colour is to the fore and, all in all, the performance from the percussion crescendi onwards has certainly taken on a new dimension, which does sometimes happen in recordings of this work. The conclusion begins with a real flourish and builds to a grand and noble climax with the organ beautifully in the texture sustaining and crowning at the same time for a fitting peroration. In fact I haven't heard the organ contribution in Mahler's Second better than this.

I enjoyed Litton's recording of Mahler's Second more than I did his Third. I could have done with less a sense of "containment" for Mahler's most audacious conception, especially in the first and third movements, more feeling of a "live" performance since this is a work that invariably benefits from the "live" experience. In fact the liner notes tell us that this is "live", but four different dates are given so I presume four different performances were edited together to make one to issue. I would suggest to Delos this is stretching the definition of "live" beyond breaking point even to the extent that what we have is to all intents and purposes actually a studio recording in all but name. At no time was I aware of an audience present, or of an orchestra showing signs of stress, or of a conductor taking chances. Certainly not that ineffable "something" that "live" performing brings. Perhaps the idea of recording like this was to take away all the vices of "live" recording. The problem, for me, is that all the virtues are missing too. In which case why not just record it under studio conditions and leave it at that? Maybe one "live" performance "warts and all" would have given us that sense of "all or nothing" the work benefits from: the kind of numbing experience it can certainly give, even on record, and which I'm sure Andrew Litton and his excellent orchestra is capable of.

A fine and well-recorded new version, beautifully played, short of the greatest in a competitive market. For true greatness go for Klemperer "live" in Munich on EMI (5 66867 2), Walter "live" in Vienna in 1948 on a Japanese CBS/Sony release (42DC 5197-8) and Rattle in a magnificent studio recording on EMI (CDS 7 47962 8) which also has marvellous sound and a greater sense of being "live" than Litton's. Do not overlook Gielen on Hanssler Classics (93.001), also reviewed by me, for something rather different.

Tony Duggan



See also Tony Duggan's in-depth reviews of the Mahler Symphony recordings 

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