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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1904-5) [73:46]
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
rec. October 1967, Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. ADD



George Szell (1897-1970) was one of the great conductors of the 20th century, and remains best known for his twenty-four year long tenure as principal conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. This recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was made at a live performance in October 1967, towards the end of the maestro’s career. 

None of Mahler’s symphonies expresses the intensity of his vision so directly, so urgently, as the Sixth. It is his most uncompromisingly tragic score, while at the same time, his most classical, with a particularly tight control of musical development. The time-scale is extensive, and so too is the orchestra, which includes 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 4 trombones, quadruple woodwind and much percussion. In the final movement, moreover, he described his downfall: 'This is the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.' And these three 'hammer-blows' of fate did indeed strike Mahler within months. His elder daughter Putzi died of diphtheria, intrigues ousted him from his post at the Vienna Opera, and the heart disease which was to kill him at the age of fifty was diagnosed.

Mahler’s revisions of the symphony included reversing the order of the middle movements, though it seems he changed his mind again about this. He also, probably from superstition, deleted the last of the three 'hammer-blows', though some conductors - but not George Szell - reinstate it. 

Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra achieved the highest standards of playing, based upon a discipline that was second to none. The tight ensemble and rock-steady adherence to well-chosen tempi suit this symphony particularly well, and this is therefore a notable performance to set beside the most celebrated versions, of which there is no shortage: Karajan (DG), Abbado (DG), Tilson Thomas (SFS Media), Bernstein (Sony and DG), and most recently, Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Ondine, SACD). The latter makes for very interesting comparisons, with broader tempi resulting in a performance some ten minutes longer than Szell’s. This also results in a second CD and the need for a ‘filler’, in this case Mahler’s early Piano Quartet.

Mention of SACD, in other words the best modern sound, gets us to the crux of the matter when it comes to whether or not to mention the Szell as a top recommendation. For the sound is adequate rather than inspiring. It is true that the Sony remastering has improved the original to a considerable extent, as comparisons with the original LPs reveal. However, for all the clarity there remains a certain opaqueness, in addition to a lack of depth in the perspective, while the violin tone tends to be thin and hard. In a strange way some of this is not out of sympathy with the music or the interpretation, but it has to be a significant factor for the collector wanting to possess just a single interpretation.

On the other hand, there is the matter of price, and on a single reissued CD Szell’s performance is nothing if not competitive. And it is a great performance too. Yet in Mahler if the listener possesses the playing equipment to do justice to the composer’s command of the orchestra, there are clear benefits to be gained from having the best sound on offer. The apocalyptic effect of the ‘hammer blow’ climaxes in the finale comes immediately to mind, the quiet, doom laden final bars also.

The Szell performance has adequate and clear recorded sound, as does Bernstein’s 1960s recording from New York, also on Sony. But other more recently recorded versions will allow the ‘sonic spectacular’ aspect of Mahler to make its impact. The best option, perhaps, is to own more than one recording.

Terry Barfoot 


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