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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 6 in A minor [81í07"]
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling
Recorded: Big Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, 2-4 July 1995. DDD
RS REAL SOUND RS 052-0186 [2 CDs 35í54" + 45í13"]

In the midst of listening to these discs I received an unexpected request from the Editor to review a set of recordings by Dimitri Mitropoulos, which included a blazing, live performance of this same symphony. It was, therefore, with a little trepidation that I returned to this Sanderling account, wondering if Mitropoulos had spoiled me for any other interpretations in the short term. I need not have worried.

There are three compelling reasons why I think you should consider adding this recording to your collection. In the first place, Thomas Sanderling delivers a carefully considered, accurate and very involving reading of the score. Secondly, he obtains splendid playing from the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Thirdly, the performance is captured in stunningly realistic and clear sound. To some ears the sound may seem a bit bright and up-front but to me it served, together with the skills of the musicians involved, to convey marvelously the vivid primary colours of Mahlerís orchestration. The balance and realism are such that the copious, complex strands of Mahlerís scoring here emerge as clearly, yet musically, as I can recall hearing. The percussion is especially well served, without dominating. For example, the way that quiet strokes on the tam-tam are caught is thrilling.

Sanderling may not quite sweep the listener off his or her feet in the way that Mitropoulos does but his is still a strongly projected and very committed interpretation, one that is certainly not short on power and drive. He observes the copious markings in Mahlerís score and on the very few occasions that I noticed an unmarked change of tempo or dynamic this seemed completely valid in context and justified by the conviction of the performance. Though markings are faithfully observed this is no mere exercise in pedantry. Rather, it seems to me that Sanderling has come to the correct conclusion that in Mahler, as in Elgar, everything necessary for a first rate, convincing performance has been written into the score.

In his authoritative survey of recorded versions of this symphony my colleague, Tony Duggan has described this recording enthusiastically and in some detail. I agree with much that he says. For instance, before reading his comments Iíd written "alpine sounds" in my listening notes in respect of the first interlude with cowbells in the first movement. I do beg to differ slightly with him, however, in respect of the tempo adopted for the main march material in this movement. Tony writes that Sanderling is "on the slower, grimmer end of the tempo scale" albeit not as slow as Barbirolli is. In fact, in my listening notes Iíve written "quite a brisk pace, energetic but not too hectic." Sanderlingís speed is not rushed, as is the case with Bernstein, and seems pretty near ideal (though I relish the broader Barbirolli view as an alternative). The "Alma" theme soars and swoops beautifully. One of the passages that I most admire in this performance is the atmospheric episode between cues 22 to 25 in the score (13í03" to 15í16"). These bars sound absolutely splendid here, the result of sensitive, refined playing and conducting. Itís quite wonderful.

Thereís an abundance of really acute, pointed playing in the scherzo. A good deal of vehemence comes through in the performance but itís properly controlled. That, I think, is because, once again, Sanderling gets his players to play whatís in the score. Observance of Mahlerís markings and trust in the composer leads to sharply characterized music making.

The andante begins at an easeful, flowing tempo that I find wholly appropriate and convincing. Innocence is conveyed. Once again the playing is very sensitive and tonally refined and there are some gorgeous wind solos to savour along the way. The strings are rich and full. Even more, perhaps, than was the case in some of the more relaxed moments in the first movement the music seems to exude a clear alpine air, at least for the first five minutes or so. As the emotional tension rises Sanderling is careful never to allow excess and I concur with Tony Dugganís verdict that "classical detachment [is maintained] by not giving in to sentimentality."

Any performance of this symphony stands or falls by the towering finale. Sanderlingís is a tremendously successful traversal, I think. Heís aided enormously by the virtuosity of both the orchestral musicians and, yes, of the engineers. Thereís no artificial spotlighting of instruments but conductor and engineers clarify Mahlerís hugely complex textures to an extraordinary degree. Sadly the hammer blows are not especially telling. What is telling, however, is the skill with which Sanderling prepares each of them, screwing up the tension in just the right way so that the blows are inevitable, but still highly dramatic, moments of release. Because the hammer blows are not as distinctive as they might be itís a little difficult to be sure but I donít think the controversial third hammer blow at cue 164 (27í17") is made. Amid such a plethora of fine playing itís invidious to single out a particular contribution but in this movement the horn section, splendid throughout the whole performance, are especially magnificent. At the very end they and their colleagues in the trombone section combine to play the doom-laden coda superbly.

This is a very fine version indeed. In fact itís one of the very best on the market, I think. I rate the versions by Barbirolli and Rattle very highly. I also esteem Klaus Tennstedtís highly emotional, black version more highly than does Tony Duggan. And then thereís MitropoulosÖ! However, this Sanderling recording is one that all Mahlerians should try to hear. Itís superbly recorded, played and conducted and it will grace any collection. In the liner notes, written some years ago, we are told that Sanderling had begun to record the Mahler symphonies with this orchestra and for this label. However, when I checked on the RS website, I couldnít see any more such recordings, which is a pity, I think. On the evidence of this recording the son of the great Kurt Sanderling is, like his father, a considerable conductor. I should like to hear him in more Mahler but for now this excellent recording will do to be going on with.

Highly recommended.

John Quinn

see Tony Duggan's comparative review of Mahler's sixth symphony


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