This is a terrific Mahler 6. Salonen is not ordinarily a Mahlerian
of choice for me, and I was expecting this to be relatively
detached, probably packed with interesting detail but unlikely
to stir the emotions.
I was half right. There is ear-catching detail aplenty in Salonen’s
account. He has clearly thought deeply about the score and rehearsed
it carefully. Wind interjections in the first movement and the
rumble of timpani in the third are suddenly of fresh musical
interest. Entries and accents, especially in the final movement,
feel at once surprising and inevitable.
I was wrong, though, in expecting an emotionally cool performance.
While the careful preparation of the score is obvious, this
live performance crackles with spontaneity. True, Salonen is
not a wildly passionate Mahlerian – he is no Tennstedt (terrifying
live in 1981,
but truly harrowing live in 1991)
– but this performance still has plenty of smoulder.
The march rhythms of the first movement step at an ideal tempo,
held steadily but not inflexibly for the duration of the movement
and the scherzo that follows. Witness for example the way Salonen
slows right down at around the 22 minute mark, building tempo
and tension back up into the glorious breath-catching dissonance
before the movement’s close. This first movement is full of
detail and contrast. The pastoral interludes are truly beautiful,
though punctured and framed by quietly snarling brass. Overall,
though, optimism rises above the terror.
Salonen plays the scherzo second with brutal bump and bounce.
The consistency of tempo between the first two movements heightens
the musical connection between them and magnifies the disorientating
effect of hearing familiar thematic material refracted through
a 3/4 time signature. The irony here is not savage but nor is
The Andante is the emotional heart of this performance, taken
at a flowing tempo and burnished by the lush, glossy tone of
the Philharmonia’s strings. The final movement is once again
expertly paced and carefully managed. In some performances the
finale is half an hour of ever-increasing tension. Salonen instead
treats it as a kaleidoscope of moods: terrifying, jaunty, panicked,
optimistic and ultimately tragic.
In a direct movement by movement comparison between this Philharmonia/Salonen
recording and Gergiev’s
LSO Live recording, I found the former consistently more
compelling. Gergiev conceives the symphonic journey in an overall
arc and plays the score straight and with menace. He is consistently
quicker than Salonen in all four movements, most noticeably
in the opening Allegro energico where he shaves two minutes
off Salonen’s round 24. Salonen hardly drags – even with the
first movement exposition repeat his performance of the symphony
just fits on a single disc. But at slightly slower tempi, Salonen
allows for more nuance, draws out more detail, calibrates more
telling inflection. Where Gergiev achieves a generalised superficial
excitement, Salonen’s closer consideration is more rewarding
and repays more generously repeated listening.
The paragraphs above are very Salonen focused. Salonen this.
Salonen that. But the best thing Salonen does on this disc is
let his orchestra play. The Philharmonia is simply magnificent,
and it is the orchestra’s sound that makes this performance
so utterly involving. It is not just a matter of tonal beauty
- although there is plenty of beautiful playing - but finely
graded variety of tone and accent, and expertly balanced and
weighted chords and chorales.
There have been Mahler issues aplenty since the beginning of
2010, and as we near the end of 2011 there are at least four
new sixths for Mahlerians to consider, all recorded live. In
addition to this Signum Classics release we have Pappano on
EMI, Boulez on Accentus and Ashkenazy on Sydney Symphony Live.
I have not heard any of those recordings - although I was in
the audience for one of the performances from which Ashkenazy’s
CD has been fashioned – you can hear it too here.
What is clear, though, is that those other performances would
need to be special indeed to have a superior claim on your attention.
For UK readers and those that buy from the UK online, price
is also a relevant consideration, and here Salonen has a clear
advantage. His single Signum Classics disc sells at budget price,
while Pappano (2-for1) and Boulez (2 discs) come at full price,
and Ashkenazy - more easily accessible as a download from Amazon
than at retail outlets outside Australia - comes at mid-price.
Given the unbridled excellence of the music-making and the tiny
price tag, I can’t conceive of any reason not to buy this disc.