both wept’, wrote Alma Mahler after hearing her husband
play the Sixth Symphony on the piano. It’s hardly surprising,
for though Mahler is a byword for angst
this symphony is the composer’s darkest and most desolate
work. Indeed, Mahler even appended the title ‘Tragic’ for
the first performance in Essen in 1906 but subsequently
removed it. In any event this scarifying score needs no
programme; it speaks so eloquently for itself.
Sixth has been well served on disc but the number of outstanding
recordings is relatively small, not least because of the
unique difficulties and challenges this it presents. Leonard
Bernstein and the Wiener Philharmoniker (DG 427 697) are
as emotionally intense as ever, conductor and orchestra
in splendid form. For those who like their Mahler loftier
and more detached Claudio Abbado’s two recordings – the
first with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (DG 423 928,
nla) the second with Berliner Philharmoniker (DG 449 102) – are
good alternatives. Both are very fine; if anything I find
the Chicago performance the more satisfying of the two.
That said, Abbado is a Mahlerian of such stature that all
performances demand to be heard. That includes a recent
DVD of the Sixth with ‘his’ Lucerne orchestra (see Anne
Wiener Philharmoniker’s 1995 performance under Pierre Boulez
(DG 445 835) is probably the most astonishing Mahler Sixth
ever encountered – a shamefaced admission from someone
who doesn’t usually warm to Boulez in this repertoire.
It’s certainly a disc I come back to often, which is more
than I can say for Christoph Eschenbach’s curiously tepid
version with the Philadelphians (Ondine 1084). The latter
has attracted a lot of admiration elsewhere but it had
me ‘wool-gathering’ within minutes of pressing ‘Play’.
are many other recordings of the Sixth out there but, as
I said earlier, not many that do justice to this most uncompromising
of symphonies. Having praised David Zinman’s ongoing Tonhalle
cycle – he is working through the symphonies in sequence – I
was eager to hear what he makes of the Sixth.
some ways I was a little anxious, as the Wunderhorn lightness
he brings to the earlier works was never going to be enough
here. Certainly the opening Allegro
isn’t as heftig
others – Boulez in particular – or the orchestral playing
as full-bodied, but there are the usual gains in terms
of transparency and instrumental detail. That said, Zinman
doesn’t screw up the tension as much as some – that ghastly
march tune sounds positively terrifying under Boulez – and
the emotional temperature is somewhat lower than most.
next issue is the order of movements. Zinman opts for Andante
Boulez and Abbado stick to Mahler’s final thoughts – Scherzo
. You can programme the movements in whichever
order you prefer, although I have a sneaking suspicion
the conductor’s choice inevitably affects the way they
perceive and shape the symphony as a whole. Whatever the
case Zinman brings a wonderful buoyancy to the opening
of the Andante.
Now this is
one place where
the pastoral/Wunderhorn mood is entirely apt. As usual,
the Sony-BMG team capture plenty of nuance and detail,
the movement’s final pages being beautifully poised.
and the Chicago band are much more sensuous here but not
as detailed. That said they find a rapt, innig
that is quite magical at times. By comparison Zinman is
clearer-eyed but no less appealing, while the Viennese
are at their most sumptuous for Boulez. This really is
glorious music making from a conductor that many – me included – once
regarded as too chilly and forensic for this late-Romantic
this Abbado-Boulez-Zinman comparison does illustrate, though,
is just how pliable this lovely music is, and how forgiving
of whoever waves the stick. Not so the parodic Scherzo,
is far less accommodating. Although the Zurich band responds
to Zinman’s demands with commendable enthusiasm they simply
can’t match Boulez and the WP when it comes to that grotesque
march. Indeed, the Viennese play with remarkable precision
and weight at this point. Their cymbals and timps are particularly
arresting, the echt
-Mahlerian rhythms nicely pointed.
That half-lit, pared-down conclusion has seldom sounded
same goes for the opening of the Finale
catches the mood of desolation early on, whereas Zinman
seems to linger lovingly over the notes. In doing so he
surely misses the seismic shudder and heave of this music.
Boulez is incomparable here, pitching the listener into
the crevasse, underpinned by magnificently concentrated
playing from the WP. And while the Tonhalle’s hammer-blows
are powerful enough it’s clear the performance has lost
its focus. The result is a string of seemingly rhetorical
gestures - surely not what this unflinching music is all
finds a middle way – the DG recording is warm and full,
the Chicagoans sounding as burnished as ever – yet even
he manages to distil more from the nachtmusik
episodes that permeate the early part of the Finale.
it’s Boulez and the WP who really tap into the music’s
inner torment, leaving one in no doubt that death really does
Zinman starts well enough but it all goes awry later on. He
pushes the Tonhalle to the limit, which only highlights
the orchestra’s lack of heft in this weightiest of works.
Make no mistake, though, Zinman’s traversal of the earlier
symphonies remains highly desirable. I trust he and his
band will return to form as the cycle progresses. A minor
irritation; the symphony is split awkwardly over two discs,
with just the first movement on Disc 1. And there’s no
filler either – unlike Eschenbach, Bernstein and Abbado
I. Also, Boulez and Abbado II fit the work on one disc.