Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-1904, rev. 1906) [84:35]
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
rec. live, 8, 10-11 January 2011, Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome
EMI CLASSICS 0 84413 2 [38:47 + 45:48]

Having admired Antonio Pappano’s work in the pit at Covent Garden, I was intrigued to see him branch into non-operatic repertoire as well – with considerable success. Indeed, Dominy Clements nominated this maestro’s set of three Tchaikovsky symphonies as a Recording of the Month (review). Given this double centenary, I suppose it was only a matter of time before Pappano and the Santa Cecilia band, of which he has been music director since 2005, would be persuaded to record a Mahler symphony or two. But for a conductor with no Mahlerian credentials, choosing the Sixth might seem a tad ambitious.

Not only is this a tough work to pull off, it also has to be out of the ordinary if it’s to challenge the likes of Claudio Abbado – in Chicago, Berlin and Lucerne – Pierre Boulez in Vienna, and David Zinman in Zurich. The latter’s version is certainly a fine one, but for all its transparency and skill I found it rather lightweight (review). Anyone lucky enough to have Sir Charles Mackerras’s live BBC Philharmonic recording – a cover-mounted CD with BBC Music Magazine Vol, 13 No. 7 – will surely mourn the fact he didn’t record more of these symphonies.

Pappano makes a good impression with the trenchant march at the start of the Allegro, the Santa Cecilia orchestra sounding huge and forceful. The urgency and thrust of this music is very well conveyed, our maestro pressing on without dawdle or distraction. The unique timbres of this symphony come to the surface too, the rasp of low brass, crisp side drum and piercing trumpets especially well caught. Once or twice I sensed a slight change of perspective – perhaps a ‘patch’ from another night – but such is the energy and breadth of this performance that matters not a jot.

Goodness, this is shaping up to be a formidable Sixth, Pappano firmly in control, his orchestra playing with commitment and gusto. The sound isn’t the most natural – it’s frankly overwhelming at times – but the recording still manages to unearth all the detail of this multilayered score. Any caveats? Well, the Roman band doesn’t sound particularly idiomatic and Pappano is inclined to be a little too brisk; plus, there’s a larger-than-life quality to this reading – dare one say it, an operatic excess – that’s, well, different.

But just minutes into the Scherzo and Pappano begins to sound too aggressive and unvaried. Dip into any of the versions I’ve listed and you’ll hear far more subtlety in terms of tempo, rhythm and colour. And that’s where this new recording is likely to fall short; for all his impetus and focus, Pappano isn’t nearly as intuitive or insightful as his rivals. He certainly misses the extreme, off-the-wall character of this movement – Boulez is peerless here – and one senses he’s impatient to bring it all to a close.

By the end of disc one my initial enthusiasm had begun to wane, to be replaced by a certain wariness. It’s hard not to be seduced by such a boisterous performance, but after a while it starts to feel like bullying. As for Pappano’s generalised approach, it couldn’t be more different from the finely calibrated readings of Abbado and Zinman, or the forensic probing of Boulez. But it’s in the echt-Viennese rhythms of the Andante that Pappano really comes unstuck; they’re stilted, the harmonies oversweet. Indeed, I couldn’t escape memories of a mascara-streaked Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice, a potent reminder of just how easy it is for Mahler’s slow movements to sink into a swamp of self-indulgence.

Needless to say, by this time any nascent admiration for this Sixth had long since evaporated, to be replaced by a sense of frustration. How would that maelstrom of an Allegro fare, I wondered? Well, it certainly grabs one by the scruff of the neck, but I’m afraid Pappano can’t match Boulez for coherence, or rival Abbado for cumulative weight and tension. It seems the finest Mahlerans are those who have their destination firmly in view from the outset, and although Pappano hints at such foresight he becomes hopelessly distracted along the way,. He tops it off by piling Ossa upon Pelion in a fierce, fractured Finale. Attentive listeners will detect audible ‘patches’ here as well.

I so wanted to welcome this new Sixth and endorse the glowing reports of others, but given the quality of the competition this release falls far, far short of what I expected. Perhaps it’s a reminder that classical A&R departments don’t always know best, and that Mahler’s popularity doesn’t mean every Tom, Dick and Antonio can record these works and get away with it. Sadly, though, slick marketing will probably ensure they do.

Dan Morgan

I so wanted to welcome this new Sixth but given the quality of the competition this release falls far, far short of what I expected.