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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’ (1894) [81:46]
Juliane Banse (soprano); Anna Larsson (contralto)
Schweizer Kammerchor/Fritz Näf
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. 10-12 February 2006, Tonhalle, Zurich.
BMG-RCA 82876 87157 2 [22:04 + 59:42]

Make no mistake, in a crowded field this ‘Resurrection’ is a front-runner. It has all the right qualities; a real feeling for the Mahlerian style, a sure sense of the work’s architecture, two good soloists, a well-drilled chorus and a truly spectacular recording. But all this counts for very little without conductor David Zinman, whose recent Beethoven and Richard Strauss – on Arte Nova – signalled that something special was afoot in Zurich.
And so it proves. This ‘Resurrection’ is the second in Zinman’s projected Mahler cycle for RCA. The first, Symphony No. 1, gets off to a flying start - in my book at least - by including the ‘Blumine’ movement that Mahler discarded in his final revision of the symphony. That disc also introduced me to the brave new world of Super Audio CDs, of which more later.
The agitated opening of the ‘Resurrection’ reliably indicates whether the symphony is going to be a winner or an also-ran. So often conductors lose that all-important pulse and the symphony then loses all sense of thrust and purpose. Of the big names I’d say Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Zubin Mehta (in an underrated reading with the VPO), Eugene Ormandy (RCA) and, most recently, Michael Gielen (Hänssler), get the music off to a good start. Among the newest recordings Iván Fischer (Channel Classics) and Pierre Boulez (DG) don’t get far beyond the starting gate.. But then their readings are seriously flawed in other ways too.
Sampling both the conventional ‘Red Book’ CD layer and the two-channel SACD layer is a revelation. While the many felicities of Mahler’s orchestration are beautifully caught in both, it is in its SACD guise that this recording really thrills. This is particularly evident in those eruptive passages for percussion, where the sheer visceral impact of the sound comes very, very close to the live experience.
The second movement could perhaps be more fleet of foot, but despite this too leisurely Ländler Zinman soon reasserts his authority over the orchestra. The playing of the brass and woodwinds is very fine and the level of instrumental detail - a striking feature of Gielen’s non-SACD version - is extraordinary. But where Gielen is in Wunderhorn mode – lighter, sunnier – Zinman’s approach is a shade darker, more implacable.
The third movement is well judged, its growing angst calmed by the soothing balm of the ensuing ‘Urlicht’. How pleasing to hear a contralto without a distracting beat in her voice - pace Michelle DeYoung for Boulez. The soloists are perhaps further forward than is ideal but when the vocal timbre is as naturally caught as this it really doesn’t matter that much.
Nothing quite prepares the unwary listener for the cataclysmic opening to the final movement. The added dynamic range of SACD really tells at this point and I defy anyone not to be unseated here! This is not Mahler for head bangers or hifi freaks – although this set is definitely in the ‘demonstration’ class – because Zinman never loses sight of the music’s architecture, of the balance between Mahler at his most intimate and at his most extrovert.
The hushed choral opening is another of those nodal points in the symphony. Approaching the last fence so many choruses just miss that mixture of mystery and reverence. And that thrilling shout of ‘Bereite dich’ should really make one’s hair stand on end … as indeed it does here.
Everything in this massive symphony is geared towards the choral climax and in the finishing straight so many performances drop out of the race altogether. And how often the organ sounds puny, swamped by the orchestra and chorus. Here one registers – and relishes – that frisson of bells and a deep, thrilling organ sound. Even the soloists are clearly audible and that doesn’t happen very often. Needless to say one is left drained and shaken at the close. Moved, certainly, and in no doubt that this is a great Mahler cycle in the making.
As I said earlier there are many fine recordings of this work; among those I have not mentioned are the erratic Leonard Bernstein - his famous Ely Cathedral performance on Sony far preferable to his etiolated DG remake - and the wonderful, humane Klaus Tennstedt with the LPO on EMI.
But then this is a deeply personal symphony and listeners are likely to be swayed by whichever reading appeals to them most at this level. To my mind, though, Zinman really is on form in this repertoire and that is why this triumphant new ‘Resurrection’ deserves its place in the winners’ enclosure.
Dan Morgan



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