It’s a matter of some regret that James Levine and RCA
never completed their Mahler cycle, especially as this conductor
is one of the finest Mahlerians around. Indeed, I’d suggest
his recordings of the First and Third Symphonies - with the
LSO and Chicago Symphony respectively - are among the most desirable
in the catalogue. Thankfully, Sony-RCA have reissued the entire
set, giving veterans the opportunity to re-evaluate these performance
and new listeners the chance to discover them. And to complete
the picture - well, almost - we now have this live Resurrection
from Salzburg, with the incomparable Christa Ludwig in ‘Urlicht’.
From the first bars it’s clear this is going to be a tough,
no-nonsense reading, made all the more visceral by the dry,
close recording. Don’t expect the highest fi - editing
is a little untidy, with a curious pre-echo reminiscent of LPs
at the very start - but that hardly matters when the performance
is as incisive as this. Levine doesn’t resort to expressive
underlining, preferring instead to press ahead with astonishing
clarity and precision. In many ways his approach reminds me
of Jonathan Nott’s taut, propulsive version - review
- which was one of my picks for 2010. It couldn’t be further
from the self-conscious, ill-conceived posturing of Stenz and
Jurowski, two real let-downs among the recent crop of Mahler
Despite the relatively narrow soundstage, dynamics are well
managed, although the timps are apt to crack like rifle shots
and the cymbals are a tad reticent at times. But goodness, there’s
a drive and passion to the music-making that brought an early
attack of the goose-bumps, something normally reserved for the
symphony’s closing pages. As for the downward figure at
the end of the Allegro it’s on the slow side, but in the
context of what’s gone before it sounds just right. Oddly,
the engineers are slow to fade the audience noise, which continues
for quite a while. As usual, the first movement is contained
on a single disc.
The dance rhythms of the Andante are made to bounce and bend
in a way that seems uniquely Viennese, although some listeners
might want more schmalz than Levine allows. And despite
the occasional imprecision, the Wiener Philharmoniker sound
crisp and clean, pizzicato strings well articulated, the woodwinds
and harp nicely caught; but, most important, the essential pulse
is never lost. If there’s a downside, it’s that
a degree of warmth and charm is sacrificed in the recording.
Still, there’s a lightness of touch here, a directness
of utterance, that’s hard to resist.
As for the strange Scherzo, Mahler’s danse macabre,
it’s spookily done, rhythms winningly inflected and climaxes
properly scaled. No empty rhetoric here, just a firm, unfussy
grasp of the music’s architecture and a clear sense of
its ultimate destination. And while that seismic shudder may
sound a touch restrained it has a sense of proportion and rugged
purpose. In that sense Levine’s is a somewhat ‘straight’,
almost old-fashioned reading of this symphony, but that’s
the way I like it. Indeed, it makes a refreshing change from
the expressive liberties of, say, Bernstein and Tennstedt in
We slide rather too quickly into ‘Urlicht’, Christa
Ludwig’s distant star glowing in a vast, inky universe.
At this point studio recordings tend to capture more nuance
and loveliness - or an intrusive vibrato - so this swift rendition
of ‘Primal light’ may seem less lustrous than most.
That said, the orchestral supernova that follows is mighty,
the brass and percussion emerging with a rare blend of grace
and grandeur. And what a powerful sense of implacability there
is in the build-up to the timp-led crescendi, what breadth
in the passages that ensue. This performance simply grips me
in a way that neither Stenz nor Jurowski does, Levine thrustful
and thrilling at every turn.
The off-stage brass are certainly atmospheric, light vying with
darkness in the prelude to that - very - hushed choral entry.
There’s a shiver-inducing, ethereal quality to their singing
that’s intensely moving, Levine coaxing the orchestra
into some of the most radiant playing I’ve heard in ages.
Battle and Ludwig are very well matched, if a little far back,
but that simply adds to the otherworldly character of this unfolding
drama. ‘Bereite dich’ is reverent rather than commanding,
Levine gauging climactic strength to perfection. And even though
the organ isn’t very prominent, this finale blossoms with
a light that’s simply blinding.
This is a Resurrection of insight and honesty, eschewing
all artifice and cutting to the very quick of this great symphony.
It’s that rare thing, a genuinely transfiguring performance
cast in the mould of Walter, Ormandy, Kubelik and Klemperer.
And in a double centenary that’s yielded its fair share
of disappointments, this recording will revive the spirits of
those for whom it’s been a long and tiring journey.
Surely one of the great Resurrections of our time.
Masterwork Index: Mahler's