This first of two Mahler centenaries is well under way,
with bargain boxes from EMI and Universal, Zinman’s Eighth
(Hänssler) and a soon-to-be-released Second
Jansons (RCO Live). If this year’s BBC Proms is anything
to go by there’s bound to be plenty of live Mahler, too.
Speaking of which Klaus Tennstedt’s famous live ‘Resurrection’ from
February 1989 has just been released (LPO OO44), but as much
as I enjoy his Mahler I found this performance much too self-indulgent;
a far cry from his sinewy First
on BBC Legends - review
which is at the top of my list of preferred versions of that
The British conductor Jonathan Nott has recorded several Mahler
symphonies so far, of which I have heard only the First
There seems to be a real buzz of excitement in Bamberg, with
Nott being spoken of in hushed tones normally reserved for the
likes of Haitink and Abbado. With such high expectations perhaps
it’s not surprising that I wasn’t bowled over by
which struck me as rather mannered.
But as I’ve discovered with Mahler cycles past and present,
one disappointment is no guide to the quality of the rest. Zinman’s
unfurling series is a case in point, the Second, Fourth
probably the least satisfying so far.
With that in mind I approached Nott’s ‘Resurrection’ with
some enthusiasm. The agitated opening bars are perhaps a little
more deliberate than usual, but within seconds it’s clear
something remarkable is happening here. Aided by a hugely expansive
yet detailed recording, Nott delivers a hard punch with the first
climax at 1:58, percussion and timps as thrilling as I’ve
ever heard them. This is shaping up to be a taut, athletic performance,
trimmed of all fat, and that’s greatly to be welcomed.
Roger Norrington’s Mahler is also commendably lean, but
I do find he emaciates the music somewhat; Nott is less extreme,
the hard muscle and sinew of this music very much in evidence.
As for the Bamberger Symphoniker and Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie,
they play with admirable focus and precision. The all-important
horns are beautifully blended, the timps crisp and clear. Nott
is focused and coherent where rivals are apt to sound episodic
or wayward, and anyone who thinks he’s a lightweight should
hear the aural rabbit punches at 13:43. Such unexpected intensity
- perhaps ferocity is the better word - will have you reeling;
it certainly did me. That said, Nott scales these climaxes very
well indeed, so it never seems as if one is being bludgeoned
at every turn. The intervening passages are imaginatively coloured
- the tam-tam tolls like a giant bell - and seamlessly delivered.
Not surprisingly, the final downward spiral - impossibly slow
in Rattle’s much-vaunted version - is swifter and more
emphatic than usual.
The Wunderhorn lilt of the Andante is beautifully captured, with
none of the stilted phrasing that disfigures Nott’s reading
of the First,
the strings as rapt as one could hope for.
Unusually for a live recording the musicians aren’t too
closely miked, the soundstage as deep as it is wide. The level
of detail isn’t compromised either - the gentle timp strokes
are especially atmospheric - but it’s the agile strings
that deserve the most praise here. In fact, this music has seldom
sounded so translucent, the rhythms so deft. Very impressive.
The timps at the start of the third movement are wonderfully
virile - a distinctive feature of this recording - the lower
strings as supple as ever. Nott doesn’t pull the music
about like Tennstedt in that live ‘Resurrection’ -
a major turn-off for me - and one senses he has a firm grasp
of the work’s structure, one eye fixed on its ultimate
destination. Which is why that titanic moment at 9:09 - which
looks forward to the final movement - is so exalting; indeed,
the finale has never been so eagerly anticipated, the heavenly
vista so tantalisingly glimpsed. It really doesn’t get
much better than this; Nott’s reading is as beautifully
constructed and played as any, the recording - especially in
its SACD form - setting new standards for this glorious work.
‘Urlicht’ can so easily make or break a performance
of this symphony, as indeed it does in Boulez’s recent
recording. There Michelle DeYoung is just too uneven for music
of such purity
and line, but here Lioba Braun is simply ravishing. She is set
further back than usual, but that makes her child-heaven solo
all the more ethereal. Impeccable brass chording and well-judged
tempi add to the sheer loveliness of this music. Intensely moving,
it’s one of the highest points in a performance with more
than its fair share of epiphanies. But the greatest peaks have
yet to be scaled, and that wild outburst at the start of the
final movement - there’s that tolling tam-tam again - will
pin you to your seat.
The offstage brass are easily heard, while in the orchestra itself
there’s a new sense of excitement, the Resurrection
sounding as spine-tingling as it should. It’s remarkable
how Nott keeps up the tension yet still manages to relish - and
revel in - Mahler’s glowing instrumental colours. The weight
of the solemn brass is just perfect, the timps and cymbals superbly
rendered. As for those famous crescendi,
they emerge with
a scale and ferocity that’s frankly terrifying, while in
the ensuing passages the growl and rasp of brass has seldom been
so well captured on record.
Another of those make-or-break points comes with the first entry
of the choir, which can so easily seem too soft or imprecise.
The Bavarian singers, nicely placed in the stereo spread, sing
clearly and with an almost monastic gravitas that seems entirely
apt at this point. Anne Schwanewilms sings with great authority,
Nott never allowing the musical pulse to flutter or fade, the
sense of approaching apotheosis firmly maintained. And what an
apotheosis it is, triggered by the chorus’s cry of ‘Bereite
dich’. The earth-cracking timps, radiant voices and full-bodied
organ - the latter so often an afterthought - all contribute
to a final peroration that’s as close to the live experience
as I’ve ever encountered.
I’ve no hesitation in saying this ‘Resurrection’ is
one of the finest I’ve heard in years, live or on record.
Yes, Zinman’s is still a wonderfully tactile performance,
full of light and shade, but Nott’s highly concentrated,
less sentimental reading packs the bigger punch. I nominated
the Zinman as one of my recordings of 2008; the Nott goes straight
to the top of my list for 2010.
Not to be missed.