> Mahler 6, Berg, Schubert Gielen 93.029 [TD]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.6 in A minor "Tragic" (1903-5)
Alban BERG (1885-1935)

Three Pieces for Orchestra op.6 (1914-15)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Andante in B minor (D 936A No.2) (1828) (Realised by Brian Newbould)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Michael Gielen
(Recorded in the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden 7-9 September 1999 (Mahler), the Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden 3-8 March 1993 (Berg), and the Konzerthaus, Freiburg 5 September 1998 (Schubert).)
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.029 [1.55.28]


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We all come to particular composers in different ways. I became fascinated by Mahlerís music even before I had heard a note of it. Though starting to discover classical music in my teens I had not yet come across Mahler when I was taken by an entry in a book on early twentieth century history. "Mahlerís vast symphonies sewed the seeds for the destruction of Austro-German Romanticism that would mature in the works of Schoenberg." I suppose it was the suggestion that one man could apparently have such a decisive influence on the history of ideas that so fired my imagination at the time and made me want to investigate further. How true that bald statement is could provide many hours for discussion, but I think that as a short synopsis of one very important aspect of Mahlerís art itís a useful beginning. With the benefit of hindsight I can see that what I was reading about was the crucially important matter of Mahler standing between two worlds of thought as expressed in two different strands of musical history. There was Mahler at the end of one tradition and at the start of another; in the right place at the right time in one of those rare periods where itís possible to see and hear change take place over a short time. All of this is germane to this review because you will see that Mahlerís Sixth is not the only work contained in this set. The works by Schubert and Berg are there as the result of a decision by conductor and company to set Mahler in his historical context. So here is Schubert from before Mahler; and Berg from after him; the First and Second Viennese Schools with Mahler in the middle.

Bergís Three Pieces almost choose themselves for this purpose. Listen to passages in the Scherzo of the Mahler symphony where the lower brass and woodwind explore the basement of his orchestraís sound palette to hear where Berg was coming from; likewise the nightmarish introductory passage of the fourth movement. Berg also distorts dance rhythms in his second piece (Round Dance) a device that Mahler spent his life using to great effect. Then there are the hammer blows. Both Mahler and Berg incorporate hammer blows into their last movements as devices to signify negation, the progress of symphonic determinism cruelly cut off in its prime. The Schubert link to Mahler is perhaps less easy to hear but it is certainly there. Like Schubert, Mahler was a composer of songs who then turned his symphonies into extended vehicles for song-like material, especially to evoke nostalgia. The Andante movement realised from Schubertís unfinished Tenth Symphony has, as David Hurwitz points out in his notes, a special nostalgic charge in the way major and minor keys are strangely juxtaposed to suggest ancestry to the Andante in Mahler's Sixth. Gielen gives a delicate and rarefied performance of this rescued fragment with some excellent woodwind solos from the orchestra and an air of mystery too.

Under Gielen, Bergís tragic and haunted sound world is given a performance of power and detail. The sustained melodic line in the first piece (Präludium) is pitted against an especially well reproduced bass end with lower brass leaving marks in the mind like giant footprints in the sand. Iíve already referred to the second piece (Round Dance) but note that though Gielen is very aware of the shifting perspectives, the nightmare phantasmagoria, there is still an underlying iron grasp on the material borne of intimate knowledge that means the piece never becomes so disjointed you cannot follow. The final piece (March) carries the tragic core and climax of the work and the urgent pressing forward that Gielen employs allows the music to seethe and boil with terrific, pent-up force that only finds partial release with the hammers. Notice too the extraordinary bronchial-like wheezing of the muted horns, a sound Mahler knew very well, but which here is carried into a new dimension altogether. Example of the excellent balanced recording quality right through.

Most peopleís reason for buying this set will be the Mahler symphony and it is to that I now turn. With Gielenís perceived credentials as an interpreter with head and heart set in the twentieth century I have to say I was mildly surprised by some parts of his performance, as it isnít quite what I expected. There are certainly more examples of what one might describe as personal involvement here than there are in previous symphony recordings of Mahler that I have heard from him - the Second (Hänssler Classic CD 93.001) and the Third (Hänssler Classic CD 93.017) that I have reviewed here. In the first movementís the second subject, a portrait of Mahlerís wife, is buoyed along with all the schwungvoll that Mahler could ask for but also by some unashamed rubato that certainly raised an eyebrow from this reviewer. However never let it be said I should base a review on what a performance is not rather than what it is. What you get overall in the first movement is a concentrated blend of very grim determination laced with yearning nostalgia. Gielenís overall tempo choice is slower than many colleagues, nearer to Barbirolli than Scherchen at the two extremes, which certainly gives him chance to make sure everything is heard very clearly but it does lack something in energy. The exposition is full of incident, however, and more than justifies the repeat. Along with the very moulded Alma theme notice too the plangent high woodwinds and the very low brass. This exploration by Gielen and his engineers of every register of the orchestra will be a mark of the recording right the way through and is certainly one of its plusses. Not least in the pastoral/mountain interlude where the cowbells are perfectly placed to add a cold, unforgiving air against the shimmer of the strings. The whole effect of Gielenís delivery of the recapitulation is then an emphatic statement that life goes on in spite of everything and that clear impression carries into a quite hedonistic treatment of the coda. Not one that has any hint that there is tragedy bearing down on us. Alma Mahler remarked that when he wrote the Sixth Mahler was "in full leaf and flower", which is exactly the impression gained here from Gielen. True, there are demons, forces working against our hero, but he is on top of them at first and there really is nothing to knock him off course. Here is a fully thought out performance by a conductor who understands only too well the implications of this movement.

As should be obvious from the Berg, Gielen is good at "ugly" and the Scherzo, correctly placed second, shows this again. The overall tone of the movement, its general gait and delivery, is as real counterpart to the first movement so what we hear is again very grim and nostalgic at turns. The main scherzo material echoes the first movement march and then the mood is lightened by the altvärterisch trio sections that Gielen delivers with a halting, awkward quality that is never grotesquely twisted out of shape as it can be and is under Tennstedt and Levine. Indeed much of the effect of these passages is achieved by a nice contrast in tempo between the interludes and the main material. The tension doesnít really flag and the movement hangs together well mainly because again the detail in the score is attended to well, but itís a close run thing for all that. Anything slower than this and there may have been a problem. As expected, those twentieth century sounds, those Bergian "pre-echoes", are attended to by Gielen, as also is the sinister descent at the close. Unlike the close of the first movement, there is the feeling under Gielen that the skies are darkening at last.

The Andante is then given a rhapsodic, free-spirited performance that Gielen clearly sees as his last chance to show us our hero in happy times before the great struggle that will ensue in the last movement. In this Gielen tells us he is supremely aware of the true nature of tragedy. That only by showing us what the hero is losing do we appreciate his loss when it finally comes and placing the Andante third has always seemed to me to be fully in line with that. When the last movement immediately follows the restful dying away of the third Gielen then manages to deliver such a devastating impression of "as I was sayingÖ" that he fully justifies this particular inner movement order rather than the lesser played one of Andante second and Scherzo third. Note in the opening pages, surely the most remarkable Mahler ever composed, the almost chamber-like filtering of textures with lower brass and percussion again impressing with the sense of looking ahead. Gielen then attends to every mood and facet of this movement. Unlike some he doesnít stress the tragic at the expense of the few passages of light that depict what is being taken away by fate as represented by the hammer and so achieves just the right balance for the drama. In fact it is a summation of all we have heard and felt in the previous three movements. The two hammer blows are clear and definite. Though they still sound like a very large bass drum being struck they have the right impact to depict negation. In keeping with the score edition he is using, Gielen rightly respects Mahlerís wishes and doesnít restore the third blow. In fact so well does he present the passage where once there was a third blow that this is one of those performances where I am certain a third would have been excessive, as Mahler concluded. Is this fate playing a cruel trick on us, we ask? Just when we are expecting it to batter us for the last time, it doesnít. By now the damage is done and the final, shattering verdict is saved for the very end.

You will gather that I rate this performance highly. It is as if Gielen feels freer in this work than he usually does in Mahler to involve himself more, to be a little freer with his interpretation, more emotional. Hence the slightly larger-than-life Alma passages in the first movement and the fiercer emotional contrasts inside the Scherzo and between the ugly Scherzo and the beauteous Andante. The last movement also has profound contrasts on display but I just wish there could have been that little more sense of urgency here, a little more "do or die" in the passages where Mahler finds himself propelled towards the abyss. This would have turned an excellent performance into a great one.

Clear and uncluttered studio sound with every detail clear can be heard in all three works in the set. There are also detailed notes by David Hurwitz whose essay on the Mahler can be read by those who know the work well as well as serve as an excellent introduction for those who may never have heard it before. The orchestra responds to Gielenís every demand too. They donít have the heft and power of New York, Amsterdam, Vienna or London with the brass especially stretched though always accurate and perhaps that produces a tension of its own. This is a Mahler Sixth to go into the collection of all those who recognise this symphony as one of the profoundest statements on the human condition in music. Where man meets fate and the nineteenth century meets the twentieth. I still maintain my admiration for Thomas Sanderling (RS 953-0186), Mitropoulos (contained in the NYPO Broadcasts boxed set), Rattle (EMI 7 54047 2) and Zander (IMP DMCD 93), but I will return to Gielen often.

A well-executed and very absorbing Mahler Sixth placed in fascinating musical context by Schubert and Berg, all well-recorded and played

Tony Duggan

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