Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-4) [77:12]
Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, Olomouc/Petr Vronský
rec. live, May 2009, DKD Jihlava
ARCODIVA UP 0122-2 131 [77:12]
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
This concert recording might better have been restricted to purely local distribution.