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Gustav MAHLER (1860–1911)
Symphony No.6 in A minor (1903/1904) [82:14]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth
rec. live, 15, 17 July 2006, Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia  DDD
[2 CDs: 82:14] 
Experience Classicsonline

I have long thought Mark Wigglesworth to be a conductor of ever-growing stature, and, though still a very young man, he has built a worldwide reputation since winning the Kondrashin Competition in 1989. He seems able to turn his hand to most composers and styles – I recently heard a radio broadcast of a very stylish performance of Haydn’s 99th Symphony and a thrilling account of John Pickard’s The Flight of Icarus with the San Francisco Symphony.

So, as you can imagine, I came to this disk with open ears and a lot of expectations. Let me say right away that I was not disappointed.

Like much of Mahler, this is a big work and tends to sprawl, thus a firm hand is needed to guide the orchestra, and listeners, through the many and various aspects of the tragic events which unfold during the its course. 

The first movement is marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo, Heftig, aber markig (fast and energetic, but not too much – heavy, but pithy). Wigglesworth has, I think, taken his time to work out exactly what Mahler means by this and in consequence, he chooses a very deliberate tempo for the movement, not as slow as Barbirolli on his justly famous EMI recording (0094636528526 – coupled with Ein Heldenleben), but slower than most. However, the music doesn’t appear to be  played slowly. In its own way it is energetic and fast, but certainly not too much, in addition to which Wigglesworth employs a certain necessary heaviness and, considering pithy to mean “to the point”, he gets to the point right from the start. Wigglesworth makes his tempo really work, and as a consequence there is more cohesion between the fast, argumentative, music and the slower middle section. His interpretation really comes into its own with the coda, which starts very slowly and purposefully, with the most menacing contrabassoon, gong and trombones, before taking off in the rush to the conclusion. But there is no lack of poetry – the Alma theme is well shaped and is given more than sufficient breathing space to make its full effect. Wigglesworth also manages to avoid any feeling of militarism, which can so often take over because of the trenchant march rhythms which suffuse this music. I must also mention that the exposition is repeated and this is so essential for, in Mahler’s scheme of things, we never hear this music again in the same way. 

There is one problem: the recording. This music is recorded at such a low level that you really have to turn up the volume control to get a reasonable perspective on the music – and even then some detail is lost – where are the cow-bells, for instance? The poor trombone occasionally gets lost somewhere in the texture, and the percussion is rather distant. 

Then the scherzo starts, and with the immediate attack of timpani, cellos and basses we are in a different sound-world altogether. Here all is clear and bright with a really good perspective on the spread of the sound, and with this better point of view, more detail is available. This recording was made at two different live performances and I wonder if, rather than edit the best bits from both performances together - supposedly to give us the best performance available - we have been given different movements from the two performances. Certainly, the music-making has a very live feel about it and seems to be without editing within the movements. I do hope that this is the case. Therefore, I wonder if the difference in sound is because the performance on the 15th was given at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, whereas the later performance was given in the evening? The different climate conditions could have affected the sound. 

But back to the music. It seems incredible that Mahler dithered about the order of the two middle movements when it is so obvious that this scherzo continues the argument from the first movement, albeit in a totally different way. Wigglesworth takes the tempo marking at its face value Wuchtig (weighty) and again takes a very deliberate approach to the music, with a forthright and purposeful forward  motion – but this is not to say that he doesn’t release the tension when the music demands it. This is very well done. And so is the Andante, which contains some lovely playing and superb phrasing. The long lines are truly sung and he makes the climax grow naturally from what has gone before. Wonderful music making. 

The sound is even better on the second CD, which contains the finale. This is a long, complicated, piece of work and very difficult to make sense of because of the somewhat diffuse construction. Again, Wigglesworth has obviously thought out what he wants and where he is going. I especially like the way he makes the transitions from tempo to tempo easily and bonds the many different moods and events together making them part of a whole rather than treating them as a collection of separate episodes. No mean feat this. After a re-statement of the Alma theme, transformed, on violins, at the start, Wigglesworth treats the slow introduction as a true preface, presenting the ideas and allowing the tempo to ever so slightly increase so that when we arrive at the devastating allegro we are prepared for it. Then off we go, hammer blows dealing with the fate of the artist (the third one missing, after Mahler’s thoughts), and very well captured by the engineers, grotesque brass fanfares, march rhythms, scurrying, frightening, string runs and timpani underpinning the music with their incessant rhythms. It’s thrilling stuff and Wigglesworth and the orchestra throw all caution to the wind and let go in wild abandon. I especially enjoyed the grotesque use of twigs hitting the bass drum rim at 13.58 – a truly macabre moment. The coda is drawn in long, tortured, lines, the brass lament poignant in its very simplicity and the final bars, when they come, are devastating in their intensity. Wigglesworth, rather bravely, almost throws away the final pizzicato A and there’s a full, pregnant, 17 seconds of silence before the audience applauds – and I am glad that this was put on the recording for it helps us to unwind from the experience we have just had. 

On the Melbourne Symphony’s website, advertising these performances, it is stated that “... this rarely-performed symphony will be a major musical event in 2006.”  It’s interesting to think that this Symphony can be considered rarely performed, but perhaps it is in Australia. If that is so then this performance must have gone some way to rehabilitate it ‘down under’. 

The performance? Excellent. The playing is first rate – the brass in particular make a fine sound, the horns in the finale are glorious, and the muted trumpets snarl nastily, just as they should. The wind and strings sing their hearts out – although on a couple of occasions I found the sound to be slightly under-strung. The percussion underpin everything, although they are sometimes rather backwardly balanced so they don’t make their full effect. 

The sound? Well, apart from my reservations about the first movement it is very fine, crisp and clear, with a good perspective on a very full orchestra, and it improves as the performance progresses. 

The notes in the booklet are by Gordon Kerry, himself a fine composer, and he casts a composer’s eye over, and writes well about, the music. 

I started this review with the statement that Mark Wigglesworth was a conductor of ever-growing stature. I was wrong, He is a great conductor. The power, insight and intelligence he shows in shaping this performance, and bringing it to fruition, proves it. 

Despite my few reservations, this is, without doubt, another Recording of the Month.

Bob Briggs



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