Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor Tragic (1905) [80:35]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 28 May 2009. DDD

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 it aloof.

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.

Tim Perry

Unbridled excellence … tiny price tag.