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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-96, rev. 1906) [99:49]
Birgit Remmert (contralto)
Heinz Saurer (posthorn)
Schweizer Kammerchor
Zürcher Sängerknaben
Tonhalle Orchester Zürich/David Zinman
rec. 27 February-1 March 2006, Tonhalle, Zürich, Switzerland
BMG-RCA 88697 12918 2 [34:51 + 54:58]


Of the major Mahler cycles now under way David Zinman's is just beginning, Roger Norrington’s (Hänssler) is further along and Pierre Boulez (DG) and Michael Tilson Thomas (Avie) are nearly done. That means it's much too early to assess Zinman's success in this repertoire, although his readings of the Mahler 1 (including the 'Blumine' movement) and the 'Resurrection' are very good indeed. I would go so far as to say that his Mahler 2 is one of the finest around. Not surprisingly I had high hopes for No. 3.

What of the competition in this symphony? Claudio Abbado has recorded this work twice for DG and in many ways his readings are a class apart. His earlier Wiener Philharmoniker account - available as part of his complete survey on DG 447023-2 - is simply glorious. The Viennese really do have this music in their blood but Abbado’s live 1999 recording from the Royal Festival Hall, this time with the Berliners, is just as special (DG 471502-2). The latter also has the advantage of a lovely soloist, Anna Larsson, who makes the most of the Nietzsche setting. And then there is Jascha Horenstein's pioneering account with the LSO, more rough-hewn than we’ve grown used to, but unmissable nonetheless (Unicorn Souvenir Records UKCD 2006-7). 

So, how does Zinman fare in such august company? He has the advantage of a Super Audio recording, which forensically uncovers the many details of Mahler's score. It's akin to cleaning up an Old Master, revealing the brush strokes beneath the grime. But that doesn't amount to much if the reading itself isn't up to scratch. 

I remarked on Zinman's ‘too-leisurely Ländler' in the 'Resurrection' and I have to say the first movement of his Mahler 3 is similarly afflicted. Whereas Abbado and Horenstein discover the tempo giusto Zinman' seems curiously leaden, at times even flaccid. Abbado especially finds an inner tension that sustains the movement’s ungainly length and propels the music forward. Zinman also misses the all-important element of parody – banality even. This is a shame as the playing, while not particularly weighty, is very polished indeed. 

Listening to this movement I was forcefully reminded of the American critic who once likened Mahler's symphonies to top-heavy galleons that capsize soon after leaving port. Zinman, grizzled old salt that he is, doesn't do that but, goodness, he does come perilously close.

The gentle pizzicato opening of the second movement (Tempo di menuetto – Sehr mässig) is beautifully done. Thankfully Zinman seems to have found a favourable wind and the symphony is back on course. The luminous string playing is most beguiling, the phrasing elegant without being self-consciously moulded. There is a Wunderhorn-like innocence in this music that really seems to play to Zinman’s strengths.

The opening of the scherzo is also delectably phrased. Mahler cautions against haste here and Zinman obliges with a timing of just over 17 minutes to Abbado’s 16:57 (Vienna) and Horenstein’s even more leisurely 18:14. The posthorn soloist Heinz Saurer plays with great poise; what’s more he’s ideally placed in the soundstage. And even though the ‘Red Book’ CD layer is detailed and atmospheric the extra spatial information that SACD seems to convey here is even more impressive. The pliant orchestral responses are also well judged, the soft thuds of the bass drum thrillingly caught. Only in the wilder moments at the close did I miss the bite, the vehemence, that Abbado finds here, but then it seems Zinman is less attuned than some to the symphony’s changes of mood.

Birgit Remmert is suitably limpid in ‘O Mensch!’ although her intrusive vibrato is a distraction. Zinman and his band manage the ‘misterioso’ element of this movement reasonably well, with some lovely ppp playing from the orchestra. My only quibble is that Zinman allows his vessel to slip into the doldrums, and the music - which can so easily falter - loses that all-important momentum. And it has to be said that Anna Larsson distils something much more profound from this heartfelt song.

Lively as they are in the fourth movement the Zürcher Sängerknaben don’t sound quite as ‘lustig’ as their Viennese counterparts (Abbado) or the Wandsworth Boys (Horenstein), although they do sing with commendable precision. Once again I’m inclined to think that for all his steadiness at the helm Zinman doesn’t always respond the changing currents that steer this work.

The long final movement really is the test of a conductor’s navigational skills and is where many are apt to founder. It is music of great inwardness and transparency. It is also a long span - more than 20 minutes - that builds unerringly towards that glorious finale. The Zürich band certainly play with hushed concentration, but once again the music, glowingly presented, is in danger of being becalmed. Perhaps it is unfair to compare them with the Viennese, whose combination of instrumental blend and orchestral weight is hard to beat. Even at the climaxes Zinman seems to hold back, so there is little of the cumulative tension and thrust that Abbado and Horenstein bring to bear. Not only that but other conductors sense that landfall is imminent and imbue the last eight minutes or so with an inexorable momentum. Abbado does it magnificently (especially in his Vienna account). To be fair Zinman does achieve a certain majesty in the closing bars – the timps are superb – but where is the necessary heft? Or the radiance, the joy?

Admittedly the Mahlerian voyage has only just begun for Zinman and the band he has led since 1995. Their readings of the composer’s first two symphonies promised so much that perhaps No. 3 was always destined to be a disappointment. There are many fine readings of this symphony – including Michael Gielen’s for Hänssler – so Zinman is up against some very stiff competition. But he can still surprise us – witness his Beethoven cycle for Arte Nova  – so it would be premature to write off his Mahler just yet.

Dan Morgan




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