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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1904) [84:11]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Metamorphosen (1945) [27:13]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/John Barbirolli
rec. Studio No 1, Abbey Road August 1967 (Strauss); Kingsway Hall, London August 1967 (Mahler). ADD
[48:41 + 62:44]
Experience Classicsonline

The Sixth Symphony is Mahler’s most classical, if only in structure. That’s an important qualification. Certainly it’s cast in the sonata-form of the classical symphony - replete with repeats, Allegro first movement, inner movements in Scherzo- and slow-form, and an Allegro moderato/Allegro energico Finale. That aside, the symphony has little in common with its classical predecessors. For one, its individual movements are as long as or longer than any one of Haydn’s complete symphonies.

Mahler’s symphonies are generally not of the happy, cheery kind – but at least they occasionally end on a note - or the hope - of optimism. Not so the Sixth. It’s brutal, relentless, remorseless – and although it can be tamed and made to sound beautiful, the most appropriate way to perform this symphony is by riding the beast as hard as possible: foam at the mouth, wide-eyed, driven to the brink of the abyss. If the Sixth Symphony were a politician, it would promise nothing but blood, toils, tears and sweat. 

And yet, for all the work’s grim grit, not every conductor chooses to whip it to create a rough frenzy … which is why I divide recordings of the Sixth into those that make it sweat blood and those that play it ‘beautifully‘. Try Ivan Fischer’s recording on Challenge Classics for the latter type of reading. Both approaches have their merit and in the Sixth it warrants recommending versions for either approach. That’s even more so than the Seventh where you can juxtapose a wafting, misty reading – Abbado II, any Bernstein – against ‘lean riders‘ ā la Boulez, Kubelik. Despite slow tempos, Barbirolli squarely falls into the former – wild-eyed – category. 

This Sixth is long overdue inclusion in the “Great Recordings of the Century” catalog – because despite its varied initial critical reception, it’s Barbirolli’s most interesting Mahler recording. Its absence from the catalog or any Mahler aficionado’s collection would be a much greater loss than were Barbirolli’s Ninth or Fifth to go missing. 

In this coupling with a fitting and gorgeous Strauss Metamorphosen it has previously been available on an EMI Rouge et Noire disc, back then still with the movement order reversed to reflect the scholarship at the time: Scherzo first, Andante second. It works to riveting effect, which somewhat excuses the audio engineers’ interference with the maestro’s wishes. That wasn’t how Barbirolli recorded it or wanted it, and his wishes have been taken into consideration since the re-issue of the Mahler (coupled with Ein Heldenleben) on the double forte and then the Gemini series (review 1)(review 2). 

Because I am too lazy to program my CD player to switch the movement order back, I have burnt myself a copy of the second CD that puts the Scherzo first. Mahler’s and Barbirolli’s wishes notwithstanding, the Scherzo second makes a lot more sense to my ears and Barbirolli’s interpretation is, ironically, the quintessential “Scherzo-Andante type”. Barbirolli is solidly in the “grit” camp – an impression that is heightened in its relentlessness when the onslaught of the Scherzo follows immediately and mercilessly after the opening Allegro, rather than having energy zapped by taming matters with the intermittent Andante. 

Like a possessed Bulldog, drooling over the orchestra, Sir John drives the New Philharmonia to a performance the polar opposite of the other Barbirolli Mahler-recordings on EMI. The sound quality was not terribly good on the Rouge et Noire release but thanks to the 2002 re-mastering job has improved notably in the subsequent re-releases on CD. Fortunately you can hear Barbirolli grunt, huff, and puff – because that all sounds appropriate in this performance, as does the less-than-perfect playing of the orchestra. It is wild-eyed, relentless; its teeth are showing. The first movement drags cruelly but appropriately to these ears. The repeat is skipped, perhaps the sole hair in the soup of this performance. 

Unlike other slow and even many quicker performances, it never loses momentum or sight of the longer lines. Barbirolli unfailingly holds the tension – even as the symphony hovers beautifully in the Andante. It’s closest in vein to Dimitri Mitropoulos’s live-recording with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln from 1959 - at a time when “live” meant live! The Mitropoulos is riveting, raw, individualistic yet still shy of eccentric; truly an edge-of-the-seat reading. There are not all that many recordings of this symphony that are truly satisfactory. This is not only among them - Zander, Mitropoulos, Gielen, Eschenbach, Fischer are, too - it’s one of the finest available. 

Jens F Laurson 



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