Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony has always occupied a special place in Simon Rattle’s repertoire, as anyone who has read the biography of him by Nicholas Kenyon will know. He has chosen to conduct it on a number of very special occasions in his career, including the formal opening of Symphony Hall Birmingham and, again, for his final concerts as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. His 1986 recording for EMI with the CBSO was widely lauded, not least by Tony Duggan – rightly so – and it remains one of the finest recordings of the work that I have ever heard. For some time rumours have been doing the rounds that Rattle wanted to re-record the symphony in Berlin and now, here is that recording. This is the third Mahler symphony that Rattle has recorded for a second time in Berlin. First, he gave us a splendid re-make of the Cooke performing edition of the Tenth Symphony (review). Then he made a magnificent Berlin recording of the Ninth (review), which represented a significant advance on his Vienna Philharmoniker recording. So I was more than a little curious to see whether this new traversal of the Second would similarly put his earlier, Birmingham version in the shade.
Rather than keep readers in suspense I should say straightaway that, though the new Berlin version is extremely fine, the 1986 CBSO traversal is by no means put in the shade or displaced. This is not to deny in any way the excellence of the new recording. Rather, it is a testament to the high quality results that Rattle was achieving in Birmingham within just a few years of his arrival there. (And one must not forget that his immediate predecessor, Louis Frémaux, had accomplished much that is perhaps a little unfairly undervalued in comparison with Rattle’s later achievements: Rattle built on those foundations.) The other striking thing, when one compares the two recordings, is the amazing consistency of Rattle’s interpretation. His timings have scarcely altered and though there are a few interpretative nuances that differ between the two recordings most of what was heard in 1986 was present again in 2010
The CBSO recording was made under studio conditions at Watford Town Hall. The new recording was made during a series of performances in the Philharmonie, Berlin, during October 2010, the last of which was reviewed for MusicWeb International by Mark Berry. One very obvious difference is that the Watford sound clearly originated in an empty hall; the Berlin recording is ‘closer’. Some listeners may prefer the greater bite of the new recording. On the other hand, there’s a greater width and depth to the Watford soundstage although, paradoxically, it’s in the newer recording that the placing of the distant offstage brass is more compellingly achieved.
At the Berlin concerts in 2010 the Mahler symphony was preceded by performances of Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and, indeed, the two works were played without a break between them. That made a profound impression on Mark Berry, who wrote ‘It terrified, inspired, and then moved us beyond words, as the funeral march opening of Mahler’s symphony was taken attacca…’ That coupling isn’t repeated here but the attack at the start of the first movement still grabs the listener’s attention. A noticeable feature of the opening bars is the deep, penetrating sound of the BPO’s cellos and basses. As the symphony unfolded I was struck time and again by the solidity of the foundation that these sections impart to the whole ensemble. Rattle’s conducting is full of tension right from the very first downbeat and he sustains that tension throughout the whole span of the symphony.
Throughout I Rattle conveys the drama of Mahler’s music superbly, aided and abetted by magnificent playing from the Berliners. He imparts the correct degree of affectionate nostalgia to the slower, more reflective episodes (for example, between 6:33 and 8:28). The more ’public’ passages are delivered with real punch and weight. The succession of unison, hammered chords (15:46) is drawn out in a really rhetorical gesture – perhaps just a little too much for my taste. I wondered if the same passage had been similarly treated in 1986 and a comparison revealed that Rattle had then been just a little less expansive – to the music’s advantage, I think. Over the years Rattle has become even more experienced as a Mahler conductor but also more daring: note, for example, that in the nostalgic passage between 18:50 and 19:50, gorgeously played by the Berlin strings, the slides are lovingly delivered – much more so than in 1986. Perhaps it’s just a bit too loving but, on the other hand, when one has such an orchestra at one’s disposal it’s tempting and the new recording is from live performances. In the new recording the inexorable final build-up (from 20:25) is full of foreboding and dark grandeur; the passage is even more gripping than was the case in 1986, with the strings’ jagged triplets cutting through the texture. The final descending scale is very marked and slow, an interpretative decision that remains the same from 1986.
The first movement occupies the first CD with the remainder of the work contained on disc two. I was interested to read in Mark Berry’s concert review that Rattle made no break between the second and third movements of the symphony. Since there are no pauses anyway between the third and fourth movements or again between the fourth movement and the finale, this meant that the last hour or more of music was presented as one seamless whole. That’s how it comes across on CD as well for there is really no gap at the end of II, and the timpani strokes that open III come as a real call to attention The Berlin account of II features superbly detailed – and expertly balanced – playing but, despite the attention to detail, I don’t feel the performance is being micro-managed. One detail that particularly caught my ear was the wonderfully rich and full cello tone in the passage between 3:06 and 4:17. Well though the Birmingham orchestra plays throughout the 1986 traversal, this is one point at which they have to yield to the Berliners.
The BPO articulates the rhythms in III marvellously – strong rhythms are always a feature of a Rattle performance of any music - and in these pages we hear some splendid woodwind playing, not least from the clarinets. Here is another example of the superb foundation provided by the double basses – and their cello colleagues. The clarity and the detail that Rattle and his team achieve here is excellent – but he was pretty successful in this respect in 1986 also. The present performance of this movement sounds to me like the aural equivalent of a Breughel painting, teeming with detail, much of which is earthy in nature yet presented in a cultivated way. The passage that offers a precursor of the finale (8:33 – 9:11) is terrifying.
Magdalena Kožená’s first four notes at the start of ‘Urlicht’ are firmly focused as the sound emerges from the dying tam-tam stroke. Now Rattle brings off something of a coup. The slow, quiet brass chorale that follows is played offstage, in the distance. This is an effect I’ve never heard before from any conductor – Rattle didn’t attempt the same in 1986 – and the distancing is magical. Miss Kožená’s singing in this movement is very fine indeed. She’s up against the stiffest possible competition in the shape of Dame Janet Baker, who sang for Rattle in 1986. Kožená doesn’t have Baker’s distinctive timbre, nor, in the last analysis, does she reach quite the same level of intense artistry, but she’s by no means outclassed and her performance is deeply impressive. Throughout the movement her tone gives great pleasure and I was impressed by the clarity with which she enunciates the text.
After the gentle tenderness of IV the cataclysmic eruption at the opening of the finale is shattering. This passage was wildly exciting in 1986 but grips the listener even more in the new version. EMI helpfully divide the finale into seven separate tracks, just as they did in 1986. It’s uncanny how close the timings are for each section in the respective recordings, which is testament to the consistency of Rattle’s interpretation. I’m only going to pick out a couple of highlights from the extensive notes I made while listening to Rattle’s compelling vision of this vast musical fresco. The huge percussion crescendo from nothing (track 6, 0:00) is a stupendous moment and thereafter the playing is real edge-of-the-seat stuff as Rattle urges his vast forces on to the edge of the abyss at 4:04. The grosse Appell is superbly balanced by Rattle and the engineers: the brass players seem to call across vast distances and the solo flute is excellent. Hereabouts Mahler and Rattle conjure up a vision of vast, empty vistas.
When the choir enters (track 8) the singing is hushed and distant. However, I think the Birmingham choir has the edge here; they are magically hushed and atmospheric. Interestingly, the choirs for both recordings were trained by Simon Halsey, who has been, not surprisingly, Rattle’s chorus trainer of choice over many years. When the soloists join in Magdalena Kožená is excellent once again. Kate Royal is not as clear in her diction as is her colleague. She sings well but, for me, she doesn’t match the tonal lustre or sheer artistry of Arleen Auger on the 1986 recording (listen to how Miss Auger phrases at ‘Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten’ as an example.)
The final few minutes are magnificent; but so they were in 1986 also – the choirs on both recordings ardent in their response to Rattle’s direction. On both versions the organ registers satisfyingly but, on balance, the closer Berlin recording delivers a bit more frisson overall in the closing peroration.
When Rattle’s CBSO recording first appeared Michael Kennedy, a perceptive and vastly experienced critic and one not given to hyperbole, wrote in Gramophone magazine “we are dealing here with conducting akin to genius, with insights and instincts that cannot be measured with any old yardstick.” I think the same is true today. I’ve been delighted to find that the 1986 Birmingham recording is by no means put in the shade by this Berlin re-make. In saying that, I do not for one moment seek to downplay the merits of the 2010 version, for it is a formidable achievement. Rather, I think it’s important to note firstly how fine a performance the Birmingham forces delivered for Rattle in 1986 and also how in command he was of this massive score even then.
So, my message to collectors is simple: you should certainly acquire this superb new Mahler Second – but hang on to your copy of the 1986 recording too!