> Mahler Symphony 2 Chailly [TD]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 2 in C Minor "Resurrection" (1888-94)
Totenfeier* (1888)
Melanie Diener (Soprano), Petra Lang (Mezzo Soprano),
Prague Philharmonic Choir, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
(Recorded in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on 9th & 12-24th November 2001 and 25-26th January 1999*)
DECCA 470 283-2 2 CDs [111.37]
(2 for price of 1)


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It has always seemed to me that performances of Mahlerís Second Symphony fall broadly into two types, best illustrated by recordings by Bruno Walter (Sony SM2K 64447) and Otto Klemperer (his "live" Munich recording on EMI CDM 566867-2 for preference). Walterís lyric tone stresses spirituality and faith, the certainties that run beneath this work and which win out in the end. Klemperer's more austere sound palette, his leaning towards more ironic elements, his willingness to press on when others pull back (apart from his perverse, though quite unforgettable, delivery of the march in the last movement) suggests the uncertainties that run beneath the music, in spite of which we win through to the same conclusion. Most conductors approaching this work fall broadly into the former category but I feel that Klempererís way with the music is ultimately more satisfying. Where the Walter approach takes Mahler's apparent certainty of deliverance at face value Klemperer asks questions of it and so makes the work even more involving and ultimately more moving in being concerned as much with what we leave behind as with what we might inherit in a world to come, and that way can the magnitude of our hard-won salvation be best gauged.

Riccardo Chaillyís new recording falls pretty much into the Walter category as a fine realisation of a long and varied journey to a paradise that is never in doubt. I am not saying for one moment that this is a boring performance, far from it. Itís just that never do I really have the feeling that we are living "on the edge", threatened by having our ultimate deliverance snatched away from us by the forces going in the other direction. You know from the start that everything is going to be right in the end and that all we have to do is sit back and admire the vistas on the way. And what vistas they certainly are under Chailly. Listen to the luxuriant way he and his orchestra delivers those magical passages in the last movement where distant brass accompanies onstage flutes, the aching nostalgia in parts of the second movement, or the way the Cor anglais embroiders the purple-toned strings in the rising theme of the first movement. Truly unforgettable passages from Chailly. As too is his careful presentation of the offstage brass band in the last movement. This really does appear to start at a distance and then get closer, just as Mahler asks, and Chailly and his recording team are to be congratulated for getting this right. Petra Lang is superb in "Urlicht!" with every word clear and a very deep sense of urgency in her delivery and Chailly is excellent in support too. Itís a hard task for the singer in this movement. She has to make a considerable effect in a very short space of time and many great singers donít pull it off to anywhere near this extent.

However, for me, on the downside there is the way the brass seem to be reined back at crucial moments, either by Chailly, by the recorded sound, or both. For example what should be the truly terrifying moment of recapitulation in the first movement emerges as little more than a few shakes of the fist when compared to Rattle (EMI CDS7 47962-8) or Bernstein (DG423 395-2) who shake the living daylights out of us. The march of the dead in the last movement, while certainly not rushed as it sometimes is, even at this steadier tempo misses the sheer truculence and the consequent inexorable cranking up of tension that you get with Klemperer, Barbirolli (EMI 5 75100 2) and Rattle. I also think Chailly crucially takes just too long ushering in the start of the last movement after the glorious "Urlicht". There are crucial seconds of pause between the movements that really spoil the inner dynamic of what Mahler is doing. The great final tableau should burst in on us immediately, sweep away what has just calmed and consoled us. Here it is as if Chailly wants to make sure we are all prepared and ready for the outburst which, when it comes, therefore doesnít have the sense of a crack in doom opening up before us. Was this his decision or that of his producer? Later the two great percussion crescendi at 191-193 are somewhat truncated, although Chailly is certainly not alone in that. Simon Rattle is fabulous with these, by the way. In his recording you think your head is going to burst with the sheer length and volume, which is just as it should be. This is the sound of every grave on earth opening, remember. The final pages are handled superbly by Riccardo Chailly, however, with the fine chorus singing their hearts out. I liked the deep bells Chailly employs too though I wish they could have been closer balanced along with the organ which fails to make the heart-stopping effect that it can.

The Decca recording is rich and spacious. Maybe too spacious at times. There are some crucial timpani solos that really are rather distant and detached and fail to shock. On balance I do think that the way the brass is balanced backward has a lot to do with the fact that when they are supposed to knock us over they donít. The Concertgebouw is famed for its acoustic and I have heard "live" recordings made in it that exploits this to the full and leaves an unforgettable impression. But that is with an audience present who soak up some of the reverberation that here does occasionally show signs of blurring our, and possibly Chaillyís, focus.

The orchestra plays superbly throughout with all their experience in this composer coming out effortlessly. Perhaps they play too effortlessly for those of us who prefer to hear some evidence of struggle going on in a Mahler work where striving against forces pitched against us are an important part of the mix. But then perhaps this symphony is best heard "live" as a communal experience for players and audience or, failing that, in a recording that is made "live". Though they are these days sounding more like every other top-notch symphony orchestra on the planet whilst in years past they had their own particular sound. I am not alone in mourning its apparent passing.

Which brings me back to my prime recommendation for this work which remains Otto Klemperer, "live" in Munich on EMI which I prefer to his earlier studio recording for the same label. Not faultless by any means but an experience not to be missed. Which is not something I could ever say about Chaillyís new version in spite of finding much in it to admire.

The inclusion in this release of "Totenfeier", the original version of what became the first movement of this symphony is I suppose apt but still surprising. If you are interested in Mahlerís first thoughts at a time when he only had in mind writing this single, standalone piece Chailly is as good as any version you can find. However, I doubt anyone will be buying these discs just to get this piece. It is clear from the expanded orchestration and the excision of certain passages that the later version is superior and that Mahler knew exactly what he was doing in revising it and absorbing it into the work that was subconsciously bubbling in his head all the time.

Those collecting Chaillyís Mahler cycle need not hesitate, others should consider looking elsewhere.

Tony Duggan


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