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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D Minor (1895-6)
Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo)
Tiffin Boys Choir, London Philharmonic Choir,
Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander
Including discussion disc.
Symphony playable in DSD Surround and DSD Stereo on an SACD player.
Recorded Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, 28 Feb, 2-3 March 2003
TELARC 3SACD-60599 [3 CDs: 33.35 + 65.48 + 76.32; I; II-VI; discussion]


In the past two years I have reviewed a number of new Mahler Thirds. Abbado (DG 471 502-2), Gielen (Hä nssler CD 93.017), Tilson Thomas (SFSO/Avie 821936-0003-2) and Litton (Delos DE 3248) have all passed through my CD player. None has come up to my expectations of what a performance of this extraordinary work should deliver. None have deposed from my affections versions by conductors from a previous generation, some of them never meant for commercial release. Go back to my reviews of those versions and you will see each time I returned to Horenstein (Unicorn UKCD2006/7 and Brilliant 99549), Barbirolli (BBC Legends BBCL 4004-7), Kubelik (DG 463 738-2 or Audite) and Bernstein (Sony SM2K 47 576) to name just four for what I believe to be a more idiomatic vision of what Mahler had in mind when he closed the book on this universe of a work.

Broadly speaking it seems to me that conductors of the present day have lost touch with the earthiness, the unalloyed warmth of heart, the poetry and sheer effrontery that this symphony contains in its highways and byways and which their elders seemed to latch on to as though it were second nature. Too often in modern versions there is a smoothing out of the awkward distortions, a straightening of the jagged edges, frequent broadening of tempi, veneers of syrupy emotion, especially in the last movement, and even a combination of all four that, at most damaging, renders the symphony a half-empty vessel.

After listening a number of times to this disappointing version by Benjamin Zander I made the "mistake" of then listening to a commercially released broadcast recording by Hermann Scherchen (Tahra TAH 497-498) and a non-released one by Berthold Goldschmidt, both from 1960. Straightway I knew what I had been missing. These two great Mahler interpreters of the past may not be blessed with the kind of rich and detailed digital sound that Zander is given but such is their uncanny and innate understanding of the deep structures of this work that matters of sonics cease to matter. In Scherchen’s case he is even labouring under the disadvantage of conducting an orchestra that would struggle to be called second rate. No matter. Such is the players’ grasp of what Scherchen is doing that even their technical shortcomings cease to matter all that much. In the case of Goldschmidt he had before him what was then one of the world’s best orchestras - in fact the same one as Zander, albeit of forty-three years ago. I must say that on this evidence the Philharmonia of 1960 knew their Mahler more intimately than their counterparts of 2003. Surprising because in 1960 they had never played the work before yet still had it within them to bend their collective spirit in a manner of playing, a tone of musical voice, that now seems lost. Both conductors project a symphony full of ambiguity, cocky self-confidence, naïve poetry, warmth of heart, wonderment and an emotional richness that comes not from an outside-in imposition but percolates out from the core, all in overarching, urgent, forward-moving structures that have you on the edge of your seat from first note to last the best part of two hours later.

It is a Mahlerian truth not to be questioned that a performance of the Third Symphony that fails to bring off the first movement successfully and idiomatically is fatally wounded. That is the case with the Zander recording. The horn-led opening under him is powerful, leonine and vividly projected, but not nearly elementally seismic enough. The high woodwind trills which become scattered right through the movement seem far too regimented and cleanly delivered to approach the demented squawks that Mahler surely intended. The trombone solos are well played but, as with the woodwind trills, are still too contained, not rude enough. All of this is symptomatic for me of Zander not really "getting" this symphony. Listen to Kubelik or Barbirolli here for the real experience. Under Zander there seems in the whole, long introductory passage of the first movement too literal a presentation of the material, a feeling the desire is to present the notes rather than what lies beneath them. The great march of Summer that dominates the movement sees the bands beautifully turned out and well-drilled though there is in the recorded sound an edge to the brass when playing full out that is tiring on the ear. Following the horn section’s crowning of the climax at the mid point of the movement the lead-back to the return of the march and the stormy variation of it leaves me with the impression that Zander didn’t really know what to do with this transitional passage. That he’s just longing for that storm to come up. Others manage to retain attention and build the tension right through. The battle of the storms itself is not as bone-shaking as it could be. It’s a stiff breeze rather than a hurricane and the last bridge passage to the coda is again lacking in tension. The coda itself, capable of being the most exciting music that Mahler ever wrote, is ruined. Zander presses so hard down on the accelerator that I was put in mind of the way Furtwängler used to conduct the coda to the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. The orchestra just about hangs on, but all nature-storming grandeur is knocked down in the rush.

The second movement does contain some nice touches, in the string playing especially, but the slides are strictly controlled, the phrasing all too calculated. The whole tone of the movement seems cool and detached where there should be warmth. The third movement fares better with more of what has been missing in warmth and involvement, though there is still an impression of the metrical to a fault. Every rhythmic jump and jerk superbly prepared and executed, but are the animals in the forest really like that? Then there is the post-horn solo. This wonderful effect in the third movement is one of Mahler’s greatest master-strokes, an evocation of nostalgia that is second to none in all music. In this recording Zander calls for his soloist to use a genuine post-horn and the instrument is even described for us in the notes. The problem is that the player is set so far in the distance that you can barely hear what he is playing. You can, of course, turn up the volume control but you would then have to turn it down again quickly when the whole orchestra joins in. The dynamic range of this recording is problematic and no more so than in these crucial passages. Listen to the Horenstein recording where a flügel-horn, excellently placed in the picture, brings off the effect for me every time. In modern recordings Abbado’s player, using a bog-standard trumpet, is well placed and convincing and that in a recording made "live".

In the two choral movements it was a pleasure to hear the warm tones of Lilli Paasikivi and the vitality of the Tiffin boys who all lead into a consoling and grand final movement where, at last, there is a glimpse of what a great Mahler Third really can be.

The Philharmonia Orchestra plays very well throughout and the recorded sound is rich and beefy, though the dynamic range is huge as I indicated when discussing the post-horn. Fix a volume setting to contain the all-out passages with comfort and you lose detail in the quiet passages.

In not meeting my own criteria for a really worthwhile Mahler Third, Benjamin Zander is certainly not alone. Indeed he is in very distinguished company among present-day conductors. Though you will not be surprised to learn that his is not among the first of the modern versions I would recommend to those who demand the latest sound and are prepared to compromise somewhat in performance terms. For that go to Abbado or Tilson Thomas, to choose just two, who are both excellent in their own ways and superbly recorded. For everyone else it’s still back to "the usual suspects": Horenstein, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Kubelik and, if you can cope with the playing and the sound, seek out Scherchen. You won‘t be disappointed.

A largely disappointing recording that cannot stand comparison with the greats from the past. Admirers of Zander who are collecting his Mahler cycle will, I suspect, take no notice and buy it anyway.

Tony Duggan

Tony Duggan's synpotic survey of the Mahler Symphonies

 



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