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This product is available from Harold Moores for a limited time at the special price of £9.99.

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1904).
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir John Barbirolli
Rec. live at the Philharmonie, Berlin, on January 13th, 1966. mono ADD
TESTAMENT SBT1342 [74’51]


A fascinating document of Barbirolli in Berlin, this intense Mahler Sixth shows Sir John’s many strengths – and a couple of weaknesses, too. The tread of the opening is heavy indeed and, as the movement progresses, it turns out to be unstoppable. Let that not imply any heavy-handedness with detail however, as plenty comes through. If the first movement is slower than expected and the anxious feeling that should attend it is not wholly there, then the powerful emotive undercurrent certainly is. There is no Bernstein-like overindulgence here, more a fundamentally classicist approach wedded to ultra-prepared balancing of textures (there is evidence of intense preparation on Barbirolli’s part). Pastoral cow-bells are caught well, clear but distanced yet audible (too loud and they just sound silly).

What defeats many interpreters in this first movement is the maintenance of tension and sense over the sparse orchestration and large registral spacings of the development section – but it is precisely this that is one of Barbirolli’s strengths. The Berliners play with a very un-Karajan like transparency for Barbirolli. In keeping with this line of interpretation is the (presumably deliberate) under-playing of the ‘explosion’ at 17’26-27 (actually he saves the climactic feel for the end).

The slow movement, here placed second, is not an Austrian mountain idyll because the undercurrent created by the first movement spills over. Solo contributions from the orchestra are worthy of note, particularly the oboe and cor anglais (not as acidic as their Vienna counterparts) and the solo horn (around 2’28: hear how the melodic inflections are followed exactly). The transparency mentioned in the first movement is completely manifest here (and the excellent sound holds up well to the busy writing around eleven minutes in).

There is no doubting the ‘Wuchtig’ marking for the Scherzo here as Barbirolli presents Mahler’s grotesqueries in nightmarish technicolour. The manic horn appoggiaturas really present the feeling of a live performance. The Trio is tasteful, but never merely simple, while the end is a composed disintegration perfectly realised, preparing the way for the Expressionist wash that comprises the finale’s first gesture. If the ensuing first violin line is not as impassioned as often heard, the groping gestures that follow are marvellous - indefinable gropings towards something nightmarish and indescribable. Barbirolli’s structural grip here is remarkable. He elicits ‘dead’ sounds from his orchestral canvas (try 16’14), a catalogue of brass-laden blackness leading to the return of the opening (17’25). This is so successful in its disorienting effect on the listener (despite the familiarity with the actual musical material heard) because that musical material itself has lost its meaning. It enters disembodied and empty – put in semiotic terms, the signifier has lost what is signified. Hardly surprising that the points of contact with Berg’s Op. 6 Pieces are loud and clear under Barbirolli’s baton. He takes the listener on an emotionally draining journey, perhaps because of rather than despite his often classicist approach. Sir John’s involvement is in no doubt – listen to the foot-stamp and groan immediately before the final outburst (the dying throes?) at 28’29 if proof be needed.

A remarkable document. This is not the cathartic experience Bernstein would memorably portray this piece as (and did, with the VPO in my first-choice version, DG 427 697-2). Rather, it is an essential complement to that and as such should be on every Mahlerian’s shelf.

This product is available from Harold Moores ( for a limited time at the special price of £9.99.

Colin Clarke

See also Tony Duggan's survey of recordings of this symphony


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