Litton’s Mahler 2 is a somewhat frustrating affair.
It seems to be on the verge of being a great performance more than once,
only to let itself down with niggling details that mar the overall conception.
Litton is a charismatic conductor, with a theatrical American flair
not unlike Bernstein and Tilson-Thomas, and his Tchaikovsky and Walton
recordings are among the best in the catalogue. This Mahler certainly
has a lot going for it, but against the sort of competition we now have
in this work (as with most of the Mahler symphonies), nothing short
of earth-shattering will do. This doesn’t quite get there.
To deal with the non-interpretative niggles first.
This performance is now re-issued at mid-price, but comes on two discs.
While most Mahler 2s are double disc sets, there are exceptions, the
obvious one being Klemperer’s famous interpretation. This is, by any
standards, one of the great performances of any Mahler symphony, and
(like Barbirolli’s 9th) is available on a single, superb
sounding mid-price disc (EMI Great Recordings of the Century). Decca
have also re-packaged Zubin Mehta’s not inconsiderable VPO performance
onto a single (80 minute plus) disc in their cheap ‘Legends’ series.
Though maybe not a first choice for discerning Mahlerians, I always
felt this was one of the best things he did early in his career, and
the sound is still excellent. Whilst Klemperer and Mehta are both in
outstanding analogue sound, there are digital bargains. The best of
these (at least to my ears) is part of the under-valued Sinopoli series
on DG. The whole cycle had many things going for it, and his ‘Resurrection’
was one of the best. It is now available on a DG Twofer, and is
one of the very few versions with substantial couplings. It is a constant
gripe of mine that pieces like Mahler 2, which usually come in at just
over 80 minutes and are on 2 discs, do not have fillers to tempt buyers
to part with the full asking price. The Sinopoli is not only in spectacular
digital sound, but includes Brigitte Fassbaender in Lieder eines
fahrenden Gesellen, plus Bernd Weikl singing a selection of Lieder
und Gesang aus der Jugendzeit (Songs of Youth), skilfully
and idiomatically orchestrated by Harold Byrns. So this Litton performance
is up against formidable mid-price competition, to say nothing of the
full price ‘heavies’ (Rattle, Haitink, Abbado etc.).
Having mentioned sound quality, it is here worth mentioning
another slight niggle. Delos recordings are generally exceptional, but
this one is almost too wide-ranging for its own good. By this I mean
that pianissimos are almost inaudible at times, while turning up the
volume means that the big climaxes nearly blow your tweeters! It may
have been cut at a slightly too low level (to accommodate large forces
in that particular venue) and feels a shade recessed for my taste. This
is entirely personal, but compared to Rattle, whose engineers have achieved
the near impossible in terms of balance and sonic splendour, the Litton
seems to have one reaching for the volume control a little too often.
On the musical front, there are many intelligent things
to admire, though I was brought up a little short by his handling of
the famous opening phrase. The violin/viola tremolando has plenty
of crisp attack, but after the first C minor semiquaver run, Litton
gives us a gaping pause, far longer than the bar and a half silence
marked. More perversely, he then ignores Mahler’s actual pause marking
after the second semiquaver run, moving on through it to the accelerando
completion of this first phrase. It is a theatrical opening gesture,
and I have no problem with dramatic license, but this merely becomes
a mannerism, one that grows more irritating at each repeat of this phrase.
When he finally settles his tempo, it is relatively steady (even compared
to Klemperer), though his string section do him proud in really digging
deep in to those hairpin dynamics that litter the score. I like the
way he handles the subsiding downward scale figure at 5’35 in this first
movement, and this heavy, funereal tread is certainly appropriate, though
I am left wanting more light and shade overall, a feeling that we have
shared the troubled journey that is this first movement. Litton isn’t
as deliberate as Rattle in his handling of the staccato nosedive that
ends the movement, but I’ve always liked this feeling of ‘arriving’
in the EMI version.
Litton’s subtle, somewhat restrained manner works well
in the inner movements, especially the delectable andante moderato.
This has the appropriate feeling of a blissful memory, and I very much
like his pacing, which is not hurried but has a lilt and grace that
seem just right. He launches with real gusto into the scherzo,
but the sense of threat and unease that is present in Rattle and Klemperer
seems somehow to be missing here; it is just a tad safe. ‘Urlicht’
is again a touch on the cool side for me, though Petra Lang’s beautifully
controlled legato is a pleasure; her impassioned ‘Ich bin von Gott’
hits just the right emotional button, perhaps putting Litton’s approach
into a correct context.
The massive finale, conceived on the very grandest
scale, comes off well enough, though again a comparison with the best
is not particularly kind to Litton. Everything is there, in place, very
well played and sung, but I did not feel that awesome sense of cumulative
power, of the sharing of a long journey that is emotionally draining.
Klemperer has this feeling in spades, as does Rattle, and it is very
difficult to pin down the problem. Maybe it is just all a bit too calculated,
or maybe it is that slightly recessed, distant recording which leaves
the listener at arm’s length. Whatever the case, I could not engage
completely with this recording. I would maybe reach for it if I did
not want to feel wrung dry by the end, but surely that is one of the
reasons we listen to Mahler so much, to have the human condition laid
bare for us, and feel we have shared in something only music can give
us. For this sort of experience, I cannot recommend Litton in preference
to Klemperer or Rattle, and given its price advantage, Klemperer would
have to be my own mid-price choice.