Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5 [41:18]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-1896, rev. 1906) [97:36]
Iris Vermillion (mezzo); Staats- und Domchor Berlin, Knabenchor an der Hochschule der Künste Berlin, Frauen des Rundfunkchors Berlin, Deutsche Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. January 1996, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin (Schoenberg); August 1995, Konzerthaus/Schauspielhaus, Berlin (Mahler)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 3479 [75: 00 + 64:14]

Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording career – as a conductor, rather than a performer – began with a distinguished Sibelius cycle for Decca some thrity years ago. Since then he’s added some gripping Shostakovich – the RPO Fifth Symphony and St. Petersburg Eleventh spring to mind – and a top-notch version of Prokofiev Cinderella from Cleveland. In the concert hall I have fond memories of him directing a performance of Alexander Nevsky as an accompaniment to Eisenstein’s epic film. What an evening that was! Indeed, Russian repertoire seems to play to Ashkenazy’s strengths – as John Quinn’s review of his new Rachmaninov cycle confirms – which is why I’m a little wary of his foray into Mahler and Schoenberg.

Pelleas und Melisande – also in the key of D minor – is the first work on this twofer, although I imagine most buyers will be more interested in the Mahler. Recorded a decade and a half ago, both performances have been reissued by Eloquence, whose Ansermet Edition has given me much pleasure in recent years. The sonics of the latter are especially pleasing, the product of a golden age that Decca – now part of Universal – have never been able to repeat. That said, their choice of Berlin’s Jesus-Christus-Kirche – a justly celebrated recording venue – bodes well for the darkly intense world of Pelleas. But does the performance come up to scratch? No, is the simple answer. Comparing this recessed – and strangely episodic – account with Robert Craft’s (Naxos 8.557527) one longs for the sensuous throb of sound the latter draws from the Philharmonia, not to mention the sense of a cohesive, compelling narrative. Yes, the German band play with poise and delicacy where required, but the emotional temperature seldom rises above lukewarm. Ashkenazy is just too dogged, too literal, in music that is convoluted, fantastical, and not even the hallowed Berlin acoustic can rescue this lacklustre performance. Indeed, that other iconic venue – No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road – gives the Craft recording a depth and richness that is simply thrilling.

So, no contest there. But what about the glorious sprawl that is Mahler’s Third Symphony? There’s stiff competition here: at random, Claudio Abbado’s DG versions with the BPO and VPO; Michael Gielen’s on Hänssler; and, more recently, David Zinman’s Tonhalle account on RCA-BMG – review. And while the latter has many fine qualities – not least spontaneity and freshness, which suffuses much of his cycle – the crucial last movement comes a little too close to being unseamed. Abbado is a master of the long span – ditto James Levine for RCA, whose Mahler 3 is available on special order from ArkivMusic – and that’s a most desirable skill where this vaulted structure is concerned.

The expansive start to the first movement is one of the most arresting introductions in all Mahler; and so it is here, but then things start to go wrong. The music that follows – that slow awakening, punctuated by timps and bass drum – very nearly stalls altogether. The diffuse, rather distant recording doesn’t help either; I wonder why Decca chose the Konzerthaus/Schauspielhaus, which doesn’t strike me as a very grateful acoustic? Still, the percussion is reasonably well caught. The underwhelming brass aren’t so lucky; indeed, they sound surprisingly uneven at times, nothing like the confident ensemble that blazes its way through the DG DVD of Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie under Kent Nagano. As for the strings, that shrill, biting passage at 20:20 is hopelessly underpowered. Ditto the usually cathartic final tuttis.

It doesn’t get any better, I’m afraid; the second movement is disfigured by a woeful orchestral blend and, thanks to plodding tempi, this miraculous little dance is leached of all its grace and charm. In Abbado’s hands – and especially in the ‘hear-through’ readings of Gielen and Zinman – rhythms are sensitively sprung, Mahler’s exquisite details lovingly revealed. In the scherzo the soft-edged recording simply exacerbates the band’s lack of precision and bite; but then Ashkenazy’s reading is hesitant and unfocused anyway, with none of those heart-stopping epiphanies that others find in this music. Take that ineffably beautiful falling theme at 7:30, where Mahler’s sustained, singing line; here it emerges as a series of ragged gasps. As for the post horn, it’s impossibly distant, but at least the soft beats of the bass drum add some much-needed frisson to the mix.

Try as I might, I simply cannot find any redeeming features in this performance; the scherzo drags to a painfully protracted close and soloist Vermillion struggles to make sail while marooned in the doldrums. Frankly, if one were to lampoon the Mahlerian style, this would be the way to do it – charmless, shapeless, hopeless. Even the boys’ chorus is less uplifting than usual, the grey start of the final movement promising more of the same. This great span is one of Mahler’s most generous, open-hearted creations, and in the right hands Abbado’s especially, but Levine is pretty special too it should build into a series of perorations that simply take one’s breath away. No such luck here, though. More out of duty than devotion I endured this spasmodic finale, mightily relieved when it was finally over.

I cannot recall a more dispiriting, disjointed Mahler performance, either in the concert hall or on record. Two consecutive Mahler centenaries have prompted – and will encourage – a surge of new releases and reissues; that said, few could be as ill-advised as this one. Even the filler can’t save this set which, I suspect, will soon be returned to the dusty vaults from whence it came.

Dan Morgan

I cannot recall a more dispiriting, disjointed Mahler performance, either in the concert hall or on record.