This Mahler 2 is very fine indeed. The orchestra are on top
form and the recorded sound is excellent. Most importantly of
all, Jonathan Nott delivers an interpretation that exploits
every dramatic possibility and also suggests some solutions
to the structural problems that dog the work.
This innovative structural thinking is most evident in the first
movement. The problem, and it is a problem that most conductors
ignore, is that the movement is too long and too autonomous
to function as an opener. Nott’s solution is to vary the textures
and tempos, so that only the most intense climaxes are given
full weight. One result is that many passages seem of less consequence,
although never less committed, than in other recordings. The
opening, for example, is very fast. It is cleanly articulated
by the lower strings, but there is no sense of bombast; not
yet anyway. The faster tempi and lower dynamics give the advantage
to the woodwind soloists, who really shine, floating above the
nervous strings with ease. When the great climaxes do come,
in the development and the recapitulation, they are all the
better for the waiting. The brass are really effective in the
louder passages, they have a searing tone which sounds as if
bordering on the uncontrolled, which may or may not be the case,
but certainly adds to the frisson.
The break between the discs is put between the second and third
movements, an unusual move, given that the divide usually comes
between the first and second. Mahler states in the score that
there should be a 5 minute break between the first and second
movements, and putting the switch after the first gives the
listener the opportunity to emulate that practise at home. How
many people actually do that? And does it increase their enjoyment
of the work? No, it is just a clumsy solution to a major structural
problem. Nott has a better idea, and I suspect that he has had
a say in the positioning of the break. Instead of a five minute
pause between the movements, his solution is to play down the
drama of the first movement coda so that it does not overwhelm
the second movement opening. He takes the descending chromatic
scale superfast, but he has already set this up, because the
tempo indication in the score is ‘Tempo 1’, and as he had taken
the start of the movement similarly fast, it coheres elegantly.
The second and third movements are more relaxed than you will
hear on many recordings. The second in particular is slow, gently
flowing, almost pastoral. The SACD sound picks out some wonderful
details here, particularly the low woodwind and the harps. There
is slightly more drama in the third movement, but as in the
first, it tends to be localised, bringing implicit emphasis
through comparison with the more relaxed passages.
The vocal soloists are both good, although it is a shame that
their timbres don’t match. Lioba Braun has a rich, husky alto,
while Anne Schwanewilms has a much purer, crisper soprano. The
finale is another dramatic tour de force, as with the
first movement, Nott allows plenty of variety in his tempos
and dynamics. I’m particularly impressed by the originality
of the tempo decisions. Much of the movement is quite slow,
but even when Nott pulls the tempos around from one bar to the
next it never feels indulgent. The choral climax, by contrast,
is slightly faster than most other readings, but no less monumental.
Detail is the key to Nott’s art; he knows that if he can get
the internal balance with the orchestra right, and have every
player agree on the articulations and note lengths, then he
will be in a position to concentrate on the bigger picture.
I have been impressed in the past by a number of Nott’s recordings
- have you heard his Ligeti Requiem? Phenomenal! - and he strikes
me as the kind of recording artist for whom superior audio is
a major benefit. Those inside lines in the strings, the subtle
differences of timbre in woodwind duets, gradual dynamic changes
in the harp, all these things are essential to his approach.
Hearing his work presented at this audio quality you can really
see where he is coming from.
It says on the back of the box that this is a live recording.
I’ll take their word for that, but it surprises me, given the
finely tuned balance of the orchestra, not to mention the absolute
absence of audience noise or applause.
Gone are the days when we talked about benchmark recordings
of Mahler symphonies, there are just too many high quality recordings
out there for the idea to remain feasible. But perhaps this
could be described as a benchmark of recent Mahler interpretation.
It is certainly among the best of the many Mahler discs I have
heard this year. On the other hand, it is such a coherent and
self-sufficient interpretation, that comparison with others
seems irrelevant. Very much for all fans of Nott and Mahler
– however many Resurrection Symphonies you already have on your
see also review
by Dan Morgan May RECORDING
OF THE MONTH