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Symphony No.3 in D minor
Rosamunde (excerpts) D797
Six Pieces For Orchestra op.6
Cornelia Kallisch (Alto), Europa Chor Akademie, Freiburger Domsingknaben,
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Conducted by Michael Gielen
Hänssler Classics CD 93.017 [135:38]
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Michael Gielen has been recording Mahler Symphonies for a number of years with his Baden-Baden orchestra and the results have been rightly admired. I included his Intercord recordings of the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies in my synoptic survey, for example, and draw them to your attention again. These have been quite hard to obtain but now, with their second release of a Mahler symphony under Gielen's direction, Hänssler seems set to make his interpretations of Mahler much more easily available and I welcome that. I reviewed his fine recording for Hänssler of the Second Symphony (CD 93.001) a few months ago and now we have a Third, also taken from "live" performance and also full of interesting things.

Gielen approaches Mahler essentially from a 20th century viewpoint, seeing him as a composer looking forward rather than backward. In that aspect we hear Mahler in the clear light of day, instrumental lines clear, the sharp edges in his sound palette thrown into relief, the romantic and emotional effects not so much played down as left to their own devices. Some may find this last characteristic disappointing: a barrier between them and music that they think should move and thrill them more. But when so many conductors seem happy to connive with those who wish to use Mahler as their own personal consulting room I believe Gielen, like his predecessor at Baden-Baden, Hans Rosbaud, presents an important and refreshing point of view and would urge you to try it.

One of the most notable aspects of the long first movement of the Third under Gielen is his deliberate tempo for the march that dominates it, crossing and re-crossing like armies over a familiar battlefield. There can be few recordings where this is given with such swagger and emphasis as here and I liked it very much. I also liked the fact that Gielen encourages his trombones to really observe the written glissandi at the start that others seem to almost wilfully ignore. These are the kind of touches you would expect from Gielen: examples of his gimlet eye for radical detail that also means he is never dull, always with something to say. The recording balance helps too and I was especially impressed by how much you can hear of Mahler's dense textures. The many string tremolos shimmering and the woodwinds squealing and squawking above the heaviest scored of passages are examples of this. The attention to the kaleidoscopic textures is shown at its best in the section of the development where Mahler pitches the March material into furious battle. Gielen keeps track of every line of the score for us. Not for him any attempts to smooth out the music into more palatable form.

The second movement shows a nice contrast between the pastoral minuet material and the more energetic trios. Again notice the snaps from the strings and the squeaks from the woodwinds. The third movement then seems to grow directly out of the second with some perky, cheeky woodwinds at the start but a very pure and ethereal trumpet solo in the remarkable central sections. Not for Gielen a flügel horn here, as in Horenstein's Unicorn recording (UKCD2006/7), for example. Perhaps that would present a little too much charged nostalgia. However Gielen manages plenty of power in the extraordinary passage at the end of the movement where Mahler depicts nature rearing up like a great prehistoric monster.

In the fourth movement the contralto, Cornelia Kallisch, is placed forward and sings well but the most notable sound you will take away from this movement is that of the oboe. Gielen instructs his soloist to observe literally Mahler's marking "hinaufziehen" and perform extraordinary upward glissandi. Simon Rattle also has it played like this in his EMI recording (CDS 5566572) claiming the effect was pointed out to him by Berthold Goldschmidt. It is certainly interesting, but not that surprising, to hear Gielen following suit though in Gielen's recording this effect is a little less obtrusive and I could be persuaded to accept it as played here. The mood of the fourth movement should then be broken sharply by the entry of the boys intoning the "Bimm-Bamms" of the bells in the fifth movement but in this recording they really don't do that, appearing to be set too far back to make much impact. I also think the boys sing too politely and sweetly even in a recording where we are kept at greater distance. I longed for Horenstein's London urchins at this point in an object lesson in how this movement should sound. After this the last movement is played with great restraint. This restraint many will find runs dangerously close to a detachment from music that has so much heartfelt emotion at its core and can stand a lot of coaxing even in an interpretation like this. Certainly Gielen misses the inner spirituality others (Horenstein, Bernstein and Barbirolli to name three) bring. But that is not the effect Gielen is aiming for overall and we must accept that or ignore his recording completely. The playing of the orchestra remains true and committed to the end rounding off what is still a fine and interesting performance.

There is generous coupling in the shape of extracts from Schubert's "Rosamunde" and Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra. However, note that Gielen doesn't present the two works as separate items but rather intersperses them: a piece of Schubert, two of Webern, another of Schubert, two more of Webern, and so on. Of course those with nifty fingers can programme their CD players to avoid a pointless juxtaposition and rest assured Gielen's performance of Schubert's charming incidental music is notable for its melodic line and classical restraint and that of Webern's magical, unsettling sound world is suitably penetrating and accomplished. There can be few conductors with such close familiarity with Webern's miraculous concision as Gielen and it's good to have his readings of these pieces so well played and recorded.

This is a worthwhile and challenging recording of Mahler's longest work, fresh and clear. As with Gielen's recent Second Symphony this is not a first choice, but certainly one to complement versions offering more personal involvement by the conductor.

Tony Duggan



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