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BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No. 6 in A minor
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi
recorded in Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, 26-27 June 1997
TELARC CD-80444 [78'07"]

 

Itís been a privilege to hear this disc, which I have to say I admire profoundly. Iíve long been aware of it,but until now never managed to listen to it. Over the past forty or more years Iíve heard or owned innumerable LPs, pre-recorded cassettes and CDs of this piece. These have ranged from Charles Adlerís pioneering set to the most recent digital versions. I can tell you that this one is among the very best. Itís a performance of explosive power and truly exhausting intensity, and Telarcís recording puts you there in the stalls.

In case anyone out there doubts the abilities of the Atlanta Symphony - for long since known mainly for the many recordings Robert Shaw made with his Chorale - let me assure you that youíll not find more polished playing in New York, Boston, Chicago, Phildelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco or Los Angeles. Their ensemble can only be wondered at, especially given the pace at which Levi drives them, and individual sections and players distinguish themselves again and again.

I canít tell you how impressed I am with Leviís conducting. One of the most striking achievements here is the extent to which Mahlerís every marking is loyally enacted. This score - far more than anything Mahler wrote previously - is meticulous in defining relative dynamic levels between potentially weak voices (low flutes, for example) and stronger ones, most especially in passages where balance might otherwise go awry. So itís not uncommon to find fff and pp in the same chord, where Mahler wants to Ďadjustí the texture in favour of a particular instrument, or simply to guarantee equality of voicing. For example, one passage in the first movement (Bar 336, if you have access to a score) has three different sonorities contributing to the sound character of a single idea - flutes ppp, violin and violas pizzicato p, and celesta f. (This extraordinarily original approach to sound was to be profoundly influential on younger Viennese composers - such as Schoenberg, Berg or Webern - who fell under Mahlerís spell.) Applied to melody - a technique known as Klangfarbenmelodie, or Ďtone-colour-melodyí - it results in the Ďcolourí of a phrase shifting tellingly at its highpoint, or as it fades away. The arresting major-minor chord which prefaces the second theme of the first movement is a good case in point: trumpets diminuendo ff to pp as oboes (simultaneously) crescendo p to ff, so the chord mutates from trumpets to oboes, with barely any alteration to the perceived Ďaggregateí dynamic level.

Forgive me for this digression. Itís important because, time and time again in this performance, one is made to question the unexpected prominence of a particular instrument, only to find that what Levi gives you is precisely what Mahler intended. The same applies to changes in tempo, many of which Mahler expects to take place (sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually) midway through a bar, or even before one group of instruments has finished a phrase. Levi follows his instructions to the letter: what Mahler writes is what you get.

The first movement goes at a cracking pace. In fact Iíve not heard it so hard driven since Bernsteinís old New York (Sony, formerly CBS) recording. Itís almost as exhausting to listen to as one imagines it must have been to play. To be honest - though Iím generally open-minded about such things - I canít really see how a tempo which is about as fast as could possibly be managed can be justified here, given Mahlerís clear instruction and qualification. He clearly marks it Allegro energico, ma non troppo! The scherzo isnít much less breathless, but, oddly and inconsistently, the finale is notably spacious by comparison, albeit no less powerful.

The first movement exposition repeat is omitted, by the way but I consider this no great loss. Myself, I regard it as little more than an eccentric admission by Mahler that he was writing his one and only Ďconventionalí organic sonata movement. If anything, its observation distorts (rather than enhances) the movementís symphonic proportions.

Iíve saved mention of the slow movement until last, and deliberately. Itís here (but only here) that Levi is surely eclipsed by the competition - or some of the competition. True, his orchestra plays beautifully, and he shapes everything lovingly. If youíre persuaded first and foremost by this musicís sweetness and intimacy, this may be more than sufficient. But, once youíve heard the passion and unrelenting concentration which characterise Bernsteinís and Karajanís recorded performances, itís difficult to accept the lightness of touch favoured by others. On DG, Bernstein directs the massed forces of the Vienna Philharmonic with a unanimity which is spell-binding. They play as if they are his right hand. And Karajan, also on DG, inspires the Berlin Philharmonic to play like a chorus of angels, with an intensity which lifts one out of oneís seat. Beside these, Leviís sounds understated.

Of course, in comparing recorded versions of the Sixth, it has to be said that two-disc versions (the Bernstein and Karajan mentioned above; also Abbado, Haitink, Chailly, Barbirolli, Tennstedt and Solti) are a more costly proposition than the single-CDs of Levi and Boulez - and your listening experience will be interrupted, as in the good old days of LP! Rattle is on two discs too, but with two movements on each CD: so you canít even Ďcorrectí his controversial running order (by re-programming) which places the slow movement second.

In this hotly competitive field, you should perhaps allow yourself to be tempted by the Boulez, Bernstein or Karajan alternatives, despite the additional outlay. But, if you do so, beware of what youíre turning your back on: this is a superb bargain!


Peter J Lawson

see also Tony Duggan on Mahler's 6th symphony



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