Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection (1894) [84:17]
Anne Schwanewilms (soprano); Lioba Braun (contralto)
Chor der Bayerische Symphoniker/Rolf Beck
Bamberger Symphoniker and Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie/Jonathan Nott
rec. 14-15 March 2008, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle Bamberg, Germany Sung texts included
TUDOR 7158 [32:53 + 51:24]

This first of two Mahler centenaries is well under way, with bargain boxes from EMI and Universal, Zinman’s Eighth (RCA), Norrington’s Ninth (Hänssler) and a soon-to-be-released Second from 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 symphony.

The British conductor Jonathan Nott has recorded several Mahler symphonies so far, of which I have heard only the First - review. 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 Nott’s First, 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 and Fifth excellent, the Eighth 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 motif 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.

Dan Morgan