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.
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
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‘ à la Boulez, Kubelik.
Despite slow tempos, Barbirolli squarely falls into the former
– wild-eyed – category.
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.
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
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
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.
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