Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection (1894) [79:27]
Michaela Kaune (soprano); Dagmar PeckovŠ (alto)
NDR Chor/Robert Heimann; Staatschor Latvija/Maris Sirmais
Philharmoniker Hamburg/Simone Young
rec. 24-25 October 2010, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, Germany
Sung texts included

Mahlerís Resurrection has been much recorded in recent years, so much so that new versions prompt one to groan inwardly and mutter: ĎNot another oneí. Such ubiquity has its price, for any newcomer has to be something out of the ordinary if itís to have any impact. Of recent releases David Zinman (Sony-BMG), Jonathan Nott (Tudor) and James Levine (Orfeo) definitely belong in this category; Vladimir Jurowski (LPO) and Markus Stenz (Oehms) manifestly donít. And now Oehms are taking another bite out of the cherry, with the Hamburg orchestra led by their chief conductor Simone Young. Curiously, this was recorded at around the same time as the Stenz Mahler 2, which seems extravagant in this already overstocked field.

But does this strategy pay off? First impressions are highly favourable; Young adopts sensible speeds and a generally spacious approach that really lets the music breathe. As for the orchestra, they play like a group of chamber musicians, each miraculous contribution dovetailing neatly with the next. Textures have a shot-silk quality thatís especially attractive, putting Oehmsí Super Audio efforts for Stenz to shame. And climaxes are superbly judged as well, expanding without any sense of strain; as for the soundstage, itís as broad as it is deep, perspective natural and timbres vividly registered.

This lightness of touch Ė not to be confused with lightweight Ė is such a relief after the heavy-handedness of some rivals, especially in the affectionate phrasing of the Andante. Young doesnít dawdle, the music as fleet-footed as one could wish for, the silken strings lifting Mahlerís lovely tunes and really making them sing. Thereís little of the tugging and misjudged tempo relationships that mar so many readings of this symphony; that tends to underline this conductorís unwavering sense of clarity and purpose, qualities that I yearn for Ė but donít always find Ė in this glorious work.

This tautness of conception and ensemble continues in the Scherzo, where the timps have the same rock-solid presence and alacrity that so impressed me in the Levine and Nott accounts. As for the woodwinds, theyíre alert and idiomatic, the lower brass growling with the best of them. But itís the liquidity of rhythm thatís most telling here. Young presses on without ever seeming rushed or perfunctory. Indeed, thatís another aspect of this performance that demands a mention; none of Mahlerís quirkier passages is ignored or sidelined. The music is in a constant Ė and intoxicating Ė state of efflorescence. This really is Mahler playing of the highest order, magnificently recorded.

As with Nott and Levine, Young builds and maintains tension throughout. The sudden eruptions are entirely expected and, more important, suitably scaled. Just sample the outburst at 8:04; itís massive without being ponderous or overdriven. Moreover, itís not as histrionic as some, which fits in well with Youngís clear-eyed view of this score. I know Klaus Tennstedtís recently released live Resurrection has its devotees, but its extreme soul-baring strikes me as self-serving and, ultimately, self-defeating. While the LPO play this music as if to the manner born, the Hamburg playing is more sharply characterized. Theyíre precise but not at all pedantic, every nuance and instrumental strand is uncovered in the most easeful way.

But what of the symphonyís still centre, ĎUrlichtí, sung here by Dagmar PeckovŠ? Well, thereís barely a break before itís launched, when a longer breathing space Ė in anticipation, if you like Ė would be more welcome. Even more disconcerting is the etiolated start to this luminous solo, the orchestra all but disappearing into a rising noise floor after the first line. In a recording thatís otherwise so natural in terms of balance and utterance, this strikes me as curiously synthetic, needless intervention that breaks the Mahlerian line and detracts from PeckovŠís radiant singing. Unlike Christa Ludwig for Levine, sheís much further forward and her floated notes are unerringly pitched and gratefully caught.

After that minor glitch the cataclysm that follows is truly thunderous, Young dimming the lights as it were, so that when the Resurrection motif appears it glows beautifully in the inky darkness. Itís an effective piece of theatre that works this time round. Although the passages that follow arenít as broad as they can be, theyíre alive with incident and chockful of detail. This really is a most impressive recording, every bit as immersive as Nottís Super Audio disc. Indeed, the crack of timps here is just as arresting as it is on the high-tech Tudor one; oh, and Iíd love to know what tam-tams the Hamburg band use, as they pack a mighty shimmer.

Young presses on, but thereís so much in which to revel Ė helped by the fact that the orchestra keeps its composure throughout Ė that one isnít aware of just how swift she is from this point on. Itís incredibly exciting, the offstage contributions rather distant but just audible above the hike in ambient noise. Unnecessary intervention here too, perhaps, and it sounds just as artificial as before. Thankfully equilibrium is restored with the first choral entry, which emerges with a thrilling blend of inner certainty and heavenly purpose.

Again one can only marvel at the subtle instrumental and vocal shading the engineers extract from this acoustic. Itís a pity the soloists arenít ideally secure, but what a heart-racing sense of anticipation Young conjures here - what trembling inexorability, that throwaway harp figure like the renting of a veil. Although the organ isnít very prominent the tam-tams are simply stunning, the closing pages as death-defiant as ever.

What a glorious coda to this double centenary, with its hits and misses, and what a triumph for Oehms after that dismal Stenz Mahler 2. But the heroine of the hour is Simone Young who, while no stranger to these symphonies, here confirms her Mahlerian credentials in a most emphatic fashion. Despite one or two minor caveats, this Resurrection belongs in the select company of recent issues from Zinman, Nott and Levine, all of whom bring something memorable to this oft-played score.

Hugely impressive, a must for all Mahlerians.

Dan Morgan

Hugely impressive, a must for all Mahlerians.