This magnificent performance of Mahler’s Sixth was given
at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert. Before discussing its many
virtues I feel duty bound to point out one serious issue, which
may be a fatal flaw for some prospective purchasers.
At the very end of the massive finale, after the final despairing
chord has been almost wrenched out of the orchestra, Mahler has
the music die away into a black emptiness, the ending marked
by a single, dull pizzicato note on the strings, underpinned
by the bass drum. At this point, even before a momentary silence
has been achieved, some senseless idiot emits a loud “bravo”.
At a stroke, this self-indulgent, thoughtless action shatters
the atmosphere so masterfully built up by Tennstedt and his players
over some eighty minutes. Worse still, that’s the cue for
his Gadarene colleagues in the audience to commence a huge ovation.
Clearly many in the audience that night simply didn’t understand
what they’d just heard. Mahler and Tennstedt had taken
us to the edge of the abyss and surely after such a performance
what one really wants to do is let out ones breath, gather ones
thoughts and then - and only
then - show ones appreciation
for the performers and the music. I’m sorry if this all
sounds like a Victor Meldrew-style rant but really the person
responsible for the “bravo” should hang his head
in shame. It’s as well to mention this up-front because
the snag with having this grotesque piece of attention seeking
perpetuated on disc is that the listener will always be aware
that it’s coming.
That said, collectors should try not to be put off, especially
if, like me, they’re admirers of Tennstedt in Mahler, for
this blistering performance really is something rather out of
the ordinary. I think it predates his studio recording for EMI.
My copy of that version gives no recording dates but it was issued
in 1983. As ever, Tony Duggan’s views on the Sixth and
many of the available recordings of it is required reading but
in his latest comments
this symphony, Tony only mentions the Tennstedt EMI account in
passing. He doesn’t care for it, joining those commentators
who have reservations about Tennstedt’s overtly emotional
approach to Mahler. Tony feels that in this symphony Tennstedt
- and Bernstein - “turn Tragedy into Melodrama too often
by much intervention of their own personalities in mannerisms
of emphasis of phrasing and colouring and tempo.” That’s
a view that one can’t overlook and I respect it but for
once, having known the Tennstedt EMI recording for many years,
I reluctantly part company with Tony, at least partially. Tennstedt’s
is by no means the only way with Mahler but at his best he is
a supremely involving and committed guide to the Mahler symphonies
and I suggest he’s very much at his best in this live performance.
Interestingly, however, Tony goes on to say of Bernstein and
Tennstedt’s approach to the Sixth: “Wonderful as "one-off" experiences
in the concert hall, I have no doubt, but for repeated listening
the creative detachment that I prefer and believe more appropriate
for the work makes for a more surer guide over time.” I’ll
come back to that comment at the end of this review.
In the present traversal the first movement begins reasonably
briskly, the basic pulse not dissimilar to that adopted on the
EMI recording. However, as the movement progresses and the excitement
builds, Tennstedt steps up the pace somewhat, though not excessively
so, in the brusque march music. This is the main reason why he
shaves about a minute and a half off the timing as compared with
the studio reading (23:02 here, 24:34 on EMI). The pace isn’t
as frenetic as that adopted by Bernstein in his first, New York
recording but Tennstedt certainly invests the music with the
energy called for in the first part of Mahler’s Allegro
energico, ma non troppo
marking. The forward momentum is
excellent and well judged and when the ‘Alma’ theme
appears for the first time [2:28] there’s plenty of passion.
The exposition repeat is taken.
Later in the movement, at cue 21, when the cowbell-decorated
episode is reached [11:28] the bells and the Celeste are nicely
balanced. Further evidence of Tennstedt’s attention to
detail comes just a few bars later, when a three bar phrase on
muted violas is brought out in a way I can’t readily remember
hearing before; the effect is telling. This whole nostalgic passage
is well shaped by Tennstedt.
Throughout this movement - and indeed throughout the entire symphony
- the orchestral response is superb. The playing is incisive
and hugely committed - the horns, in particular, richly satisfying.
The playing is also precise and I never cease to wonder at Tennstedt’s
ability to get orchestras to play so accurately for him since
his beat was really rather imprecise - a friend, also an admirer,
once affectionately described his stick technique as reminding
him of an agitated stork! The coda, led first by exultant horns
[21:58] with the gauntlet then picked up by the trumpets, is
Many scholars and commentators now contend that the Scherzo of
this symphony should be placed third and the Andante second.
Mahler certainly vacillated over this question though it appears
that he came to prefer the Andante to be placed before the Scherzo. Pace
composer’s apparent preference and the weight of much informed
scholarship I’m afraid I unrepentantly prefer the scherzo
to come second. It seems to me that there is a kinship between
the musical material of the first movement and the scherzo that
makes it imperative that the two movements follow each other
in the way the at the first two movements of the Fifth belong
together. There’s also the not inconsiderable question
that placing the Andante third offers the listener - if not the
performers - some emotional respite before the huge canvass of
the finale is encountered. I’m happy to say that Tennstedt,
in common with many other conductors, places the Scherzo second.
He leads a pungent account of the movement and for much of the
time the music crackles. However, not all the music is of this
nature. The trio section, marked Altväterisch
fashioned”) is spiky yet calmer. Tennstedt takes it at
a pace that’s quite deliberate. However, these episodes
are brushed aside by the biting main material of the movement.
In these stretches Tennstedt draws sharply characterised playing
from the LPO, bringing out the grotesque side of the music. There
are dark demons at times in this movement and Tennstedt makes
sure they get noticed.
He leads a spacious and well-moulded reading of the Andante.
The woodwind section plays particularly well for him at the start
and later the strings are in red blooded form. The tone becomes
more passionate at around 5:44 and Tennstedt and his orchestra
respond excellently. Later, at cue 100, [12:23] the music is
really ardent and the intensity of the playing is astonishing.
My one cavil is that the interjection of the cowbells isn’t
as telling a presence as one would like. However, this is a very
convincing account of the movement.
The huge finale is massively demanding, not just on the players
but also on the listeners. As was the case with the first movement,
Tennstedt’s reading is tauter than in his EMI recording.
In that version the finale plays for 32:55. Here, the music lasts
for 30:40. The chilling opening, with its darkly imagined scoring,
is brought off splendidly. When the allegro moderato
reached (cue 109, 5:05) Tennstedt impels the music forward powerfully,
screwing the tension up incrementally over the succeeding pages
but never, to my ears, overstepping into hysteria. When the mood
lightens somewhat at cue 117 [7:43] the playing has a good spring
to its step and the contrast with what has preceded this passage
is well achieved.
Mahler’s dark, dramatic turmoil resumes and gradually he
builds up to the first of the two hammer blows (like most conductors
Tennstedt eschews the third blow that Mahler quickly removed
from the original score). When it comes [12:49] the blow itself
is rather a disappointment. I don’t know what means the
LPO percussionists adopted to try to achieve this powerful dull
thud but it doesn’t come off, though as a “conventional” climax
the moment is exciting enough. Matters are no better when the
second hammer blow arrives [17:37] but immediately after that
the full force of the orchestra is unleashed, as it should be,
and the music is turbulent and frightening. From cue 150 onwards
[22:36] the performance is especially visceral, the intensity
of Tennstedt’s vision of the score quite overwhelming.
When the bleak coda is reached the trombones and horns intone
this desolate passage with controlled despair before the last fortissimo
brings down the tragic curtain.
This is a superb performance that gripped me from start to finish.
I found myself completely convinced by Tennstedt’s vision
of the score. His orchestra plays like men and women possessed
and meet every demand that he and Mahler make of them. The shamefully
intrusive cheer at the end is a blot on the landscape and is
one which would have defied any attempts to edit out. Having
said that LPO Live were right to issue the recording for the
distinction of the performance overall is such that one can only
be grateful to have it available. I wonder, do they have concert
performances of the Second and Third symphonies in the archive?
For now, however, this very welcome issue stands as a splendid
testimony to the Tennstedt/LPO partnership at its peak.
Early on in this review I quoted Tony Duggan’s view that
the Tennstedt way with Mahler’s Sixth might be a wonderful
experience heard once in the concert hall but less appropriate
for repeated listening. What we have here is precisely that one-off
experience and it’s important to bear in mind that when
the performance was given no one ever dreamt of it being preserved
for repeated listening. It will be evident from my comments above
that I esteem this performance very highly indeed. That said,
I know what Tony Duggan means; this is not an approach to the
Sixth that works for everyday listening - if one can ever truly
listen to such a work “everyday”. No, Mahler’s
Sixth -like his Ninth - is one of those special occasion works
that we are in danger of diminishing if we listen to it too often.
So I mean it as a sincere compliment when I say that I don’t
this recording for frequent listening. This is a very special
performance but it’s one to handle with care and to listen
to - very attentively - from time to time. It certainly supersedes
the EMI studio recording but it’s not the only way to experience
this amazing symphony. The recordings by Thomas Sanderling (see review
Marrss Jansons (see review
Mitropoulos (see review
Barbirolli (see review
and Horenstein (see review
are among the versions that truly demand
a hearing. But
don’t overlook this Tennstedt account. It’s something