The dissemination of recorded music was once controlled mostly
by commercial corporate giants. It continues to devolve into
an ad hoc patchwork of studio recordings, self-financed
productions and concert broadcasts and podcasts, licit and otherwise.
It's an apt time therefore to consider the balance between documentary
and commercial considerations in classical recording, as exemplified
by the present Mahler Sixth.
Olomouc, the Czech Republic's fifth-largest city, fields a respectable,
decently disciplined ensemble, on a par with the mid-level regional
orchestras Stateside. There aren't conspicuous technical weaknesses
of the sort veteran listeners will remember from the lower-grade
orchestras that Vox, for example, used to use. The woodwinds
are not distinctive tonally - and the oboe has the usual problem
of sticking out in quiet passages - but they're clear and well-tuned.
The Brass, separately and as a choir, are satisfyingly firm.
The strings, while understaffed, blend well, without any scrappiness.
If the wind instruments tend inevitably to dominate the ensemble
sonority, at least it's solid and compact. The worst distraction
comes with the percussion: the various cowbell episodes find
the assigned player clanking them rather hysterically.
The Mahler Sixth is a physically taxing piece - it took time
for even fine orchestras to get to grips with its demands -
so the Moravian Philharmonic, in this concert recording, acquits
itself plausibly. The violins can sound dry above the stave;
the horns are occasionally sluggish; and the octave rise at
15:29 in the first movement is unduly raucous. Only the passage
after the Finale's first hammer-blow at 12:23, where the trumpets
twice come unstuck from the strings' dotted figures, betrays
the effects of flagging attention and endurance. In some passages,
the smaller number of strings pays textural dividends. In the
first movement, for example, more of the filigree around the
"Alma" theme comes through than usual; the contrapuntal
elements in the triumphant coda also register more clearly.
And Petr Vronský's conducting is the sort that helps such an
orchestra work through stamina problems. He takes a basically
"horizontal" approach to the score - never a bad idea,
given Mahler's linear, contrapuntal conceptions - adopting flowing
tempi, keeping the musical lines active. The rhythms are sprightly
- to the point where some of the first movement's dotted rhythms
get swallowed - yet there's no shortage of harmonic weight where
it's needed. He brings a nice buoyancy to the Scherzo
which is played here as the third movement, following the Andante
and he realizes the tricky cross-accents of the opening bars
with plenty of thrust. The contrasting woodwind subject sounds
natural and not too finicky; the third group brings an ominous
note. The long spans of the outer movements hold together well,
despite numerous passing "off" balances in the Finale.
At the very end of the symphony, Vronský cuts off the trumpet
chord before the pizzicato. Technically he's cheating - the
chord is supposed to hold until the pizzicato - but the effect
conveys the right stark finality.
The emphasis on motion has its occasional drawbacks. In the
first movement, the little transitional woodwind chorale pushes
forward both times, though Mahler instructs, Stets das gleiches
Tempo; it's also louder than the indicated pianissimo,
so the texture isn't airy and "open" enough. More
damaging is the brisk, flowing tempo for the Andante moderato.
It sounds appropriate enough at the start, but as the movement
progresses, one wants more space around the notes, more time
to savor the unexpected harmonic shifts. There are several such
towards the end of the movement: the ethereal shift into C major
at 7:48 passes virtually unacknowledged; the move to A major
ten bars later registers almost by accident; even the final
return to the movement's home key of E flat at 11:30 is a non-event.
All of which brings me back to my original discussion: for whom
is this recording intended? Its principal value is as a document
of the orchestra - a "snapshot" of its playing at
this time. The ensemble and its supporters can be justly proud
of this achievement, of which this disc is a fine souvenir.
Their performance would have been a blessing in the 1950s, when
Mahler's music remained relatively unfamiliar; but, for that
same reason, it couldn't have existed then. Now, despite its
incidental felicities, it doesn't really merit a niche in the
international marketplace. It was smart for the producers -
ArcoDiva is a classical music production and management company
favoring young Czech artists - not to go to the trouble and
expense of studio sessions, but even this concert recording
might better have been restricted to purely local distribution.
Stephen Francis Vasta