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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-06)
London Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
Recorded "live" at the Barbican, London, 27-28 November 2002
LSO LIVE LSO0038 [2CDs: 81.52]

This is the first Mahler release from the LSO Live label and itís most welcome since, over many years, the London Symphony Orchestra has built a fine reputation as a Mahler instrument. This is also the first appearance on their CD label of Mariss Jansons who has himself been building a similar reputation in Mahler in recent posts in Oslo and Pittsburgh. The fact that his next musical directorship is at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra should tell us that Mahler is likely to play a very big part in his life for some years to come. So, well done LSO Live for catching this fluent, expressive and powerful performance on the wing from two concert performances in London late in 2002.

Jansons is among those conductors who, I believe rightly, sees the first movement as containing more optimism than pessimism. By doing so this sets the tragedy to come later in its proper context and so makes its eventual arrival that much more terrible. Jansons manages this, like a select band of other conductors, by minding the classical symphony "shop" Mahler sets out in this movement. He does this by keeping his tempo "up" enough to allow things to move along with life and vigour, but held on course enough to make all the notes tell. Not for Jansons the world-weary drag of Barbirolli in this movement, but neither a swift "quick march" like Kubelik or Levi. The effect of all this is to hear the movement presented "all of a piece" with minimum changes of tempo or expression for each episode. It works, as indeed it does through the whole of Jansonsí performance. Iím sure there are some of you who will feel robbed of your beloved Mahlerian agony and torture at this early stage, but I think that would be inappropriate. Even the great second subject upsurge, the entrance of the lovely Alma, is contained, reined back; that is until a deft and very effective flourish in the lower strings pitches a singing line with expressive vibrato, flashing the ladyís allure as she turns away in a flounce of her skirts. Jansons can clearly spot the rustle of silk at fifty paces. He can also be aware of the press of the great events of this movement during the sublime interlude where cowbells and strings shimmer with enough lyric allure to throw us off guard but not be surprised when the martial music comes back with a vengeance. This is an impressive achievement, as too is the effect of all the threads being knitted together as the movement marches to conclusion. False optimism, perhaps, but optimism all the same. The detailed sound recording means everything is heard, woodwind especially pungent poking out of the texture, and propelling us to the, very upbeat, coda.

Mahlerís ambivalence, his dithering, regarding how to order the two middle movements is well known to Mahlerites but might not be to newcomers to his music. It needs to be now that a "New Revisionism" is in the air on this matter. Most recordings and performances of the work have followed the critical edition of the score published in the 1960s reflecting how Mahler originally conceived the movement order - Scherzo second and Andante third. However, even after the publication of that edition a few conductors have still preferred to follow the order that Mahler subsequently adopted in the three performances he gave in his lifetime by placing the Andante second and the Scherzo third. In all honesty the symphony does work perfectly well either way which should not be surprising in the light of Mahlerís actions. So itís quite easy to reflect Mahlerís position by simply letting conductors choose which way they feel is the right way going on the historical evidence, some of which is still emerging. The listener at home can even programme their CD players to reflect the order that they want. Though I prefer to stick to whatever order the conductor has chosen even though my own preference remains for the Scherzo to be placed second. I base this on a number of reasons, one being that I have experienced the work that way more often, also on the fact that that was Mahlerís first thought which, for me, carries a lot of weight. But there are other reasons, strong ones, to support the movement order contained in the critical edition - both musical and evidential. This is a question that will never be answered definitively because I donít believe there is a definitive answer "out there" waiting to be found. However I can take Andante-Scherzo if that is what a conductor prefers. I do believe that the movement order question needs to be brought to the attention of all listeners to this work. Especially to newcomers so they can feel part of the ongoing debate on this already fascinating work and maybe make it their business to experience it in the alternative way next time, if possible, and know the anomaly, make it part of their experience of this work.

This is all relevant to the present recording because Mariss Jansons stands aside from the critical edition and places the Andante second. I was surprised to find myself reminded here a little of the Seventh Symphony to come whilst listening. Not something I expected yet not so strange since both symphonies have kinship with the "Kindertotenlieder" which were contemporary with both. I suppose itís in the phrasing that Jansons adopts and most particularly the darker colouring he finds, certainly at the start. What Jansons certainly does do is keep the music moving. Fully aware that this is not an Adagio which seemed to be the idea behind Michael Tilson Thomas in his recent San Francisco recording. This movement is essentially a meditation on a very simple idea and repays a hundred-fold when the conductor applies a light touch, as Jansons does. I know that some prefer, again, more angst, more "heart-on-sleeve", but I firmly believe that this symphonyís classical nature is served better by some creative detachment.

The Scherzo following is suitably truculent with the ungainly gait marked but not underlined too much. There is some nice detailing made in the trio sections which make a fine contrast. Notice especially the LSOís strings in their carefully prepared slides. Again the detailed recording really helps. Even in the densest textures everything is transparent. Sometimes the acoustic of The Barbican has been a definite minus to LSO Live releases. The Bruckner recordings by Colin Davis are a case in point. In this work, however, Tony Faulknerís balancing of the hall really works in the musicís favour right through. Mahlerís Sixth benefits from a close-in sound like this and gives it a brittle quality that it needs.

In the Sixth all roads lead to the fourth movement and any performance or recording really needs something special from conductor and players to crown the drama of this great work. In "live" performance recordings this is sometimes a problem because to play this thirty minute piece of such challenging dimensions after having played the preceding three stretches the greatest orchestras to breaking point. I can only say that the LSO rises to the challenge and passes it with flying colours, compelling from start to finish. The amazing opening passage is brilliantly projected, balanced excellently by Jansons and his engineer and once the main allegro gets underway the powerful, driving logic behind Jansonsís conception becomes crystal clear - as crystal clear as the sound balance. Holding fast to the symphonic line, as he did in the first movement, the tension that Jansons conveys is palpable and never flags and you know that it comes from within the music, is not imposed from outside it. Time and again Jansonsís grasp of the long movementís geography pays dividends. Listen to how he stunningly relates the cowbells episodes here to those in the first movement and the Andante, knitting the drama together. But hear too at the passage leading to the first hammer-blow the way that the lower strings dig deep and, soon after, the magnificent LSO horn section cutting through the texture like thermic lances and then, immediately before the hammer comes down, the woodwind choir squealing for all they are worth before the hammer finally obliterates them. The sound of the hammer on this recording is, by the way, excellent. Not too loud, but loud enough to sound distinctive. There are just the two hammers, as Mahler finally decided, but the passage where the third blow used to be, leading to the great, dark coda is delivered with thrilling inevitability. Such profound inevitability is coursing through the musicís veins by now that a third hammer blow would have spoilt it, overdone it, and so damaged the great crash that brings the symphony to its final, horrifying whimper.

At the low price asked this recording should be on every Mahleriteís shelf along with Thomas Sanderlingís (RS 953-0186) with which I deal in detail in my survey of Sixth recordings:

and which remains my top recommendation just ahead of Gunther Herbig on Berlin Classics (0094612BC) reviewed here:

Michael Gielen (Hännsler CD 93.029) reviewed here:

also deserves serious consideration for the leading recommendations for this symphony. Those who want their Mahler Sixth more overtly emotional, more melodramatic, will look elsewhere to Bernstein on Sony or DG or Tennstedt or Rattle on EMI. But I will remain faithful to the classically conceived, symphonically aware approach to tragedy well exemplified here by Mariss Jansons and will certainly return to this.

Passion and power with a purpose - a lean and clean Mahler machine.

Tony Duggan

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