Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888) [56:57]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’* (1894) [92:41]
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-1896)** [106:15]
*Michelle DeYoung (mezzo); *Sally Matthews (soprano); **Sarah Connolly (mezzo)
*Philharmonia Voices; *BBC Symphony Chorus; **Tiffin Boys’ Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 12, 17 April, 8 May 2011 (Nos. 1, 2, 3 respectively)
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD360 [5 CDs: 256:03]
As a conductor Lorin Maazel is more variable - and controversial
- than most. He’s one of those baton-wavers who can turn in
a perfectly routine performance one day and lead an astounding one
the next. The stories of his manner - intractable, arrogant - are
legion, and generally he doesn’t get a good press on the UK
side of the Atlantic. I’m not one of the nay-sayers, though.
I’ve heard him give more good performances than bad ones. Even
so, his CBS/Sony Mahler was so uneven I did wonder what he could bring
to a table already groaning under the weight of fine sets.
Those were my initial thoughts before I sat down to review his Concertgebouw
Mahler Sixth. In the event I was utterly persuaded by the performance,
which has all the heat, thrust and sheer concentration I look for
in this symphony (review).
Indeed, it’s one of the better recordings of this work to have
come my way in recent years. It certainly isn’t the painfully
slow, wayward reading that leaves Maazel’s critics foaming at
the mouth. Still, that’s just one concert, and where Mahler
symphonies are concerned it would be an exceptional conductor who
excelled at them all.
These 2011 Philharmonia concerts had mixed reviews from our Seen and
Heard team, but I deliberately avoided refreshing my memory before
listening to this box. Minutes into this grossly exaggerated account
of the First Symphony and any feelings of good will towards this maestro
began to evaporate. Dynamics are very extreme - one has to crank up
the volume to catch the forest murmurs at the outset, only to cower
at the big, brazen climaxes that follow. Where is that essential air
of wonder, that eye-blinking delight as our hero steps from gloom
That’s just the first of a multitude of sins. Not only is Maazel
impossibly po-faced he’s also outrageously self indulgent. Mahler’s
clear, crisp rhythms are smudged and blurred, phrases stretch and
twang. The sprightly Ländler in the second movement offer
some respite, but alas it’s only temporary. Before long we’re
back to that same humourless, halting manner. The close, rather airless
sound doesn’t help matters, and I began to think this cycle
was a horrible mistake.
As if the stuttering progress of the second movement wasn’t
enough the weird funeral cortege in the third is devoid of its usual
strange charm. Maazel changes tack at will and insists on pointless
emphases and underlinings. The music doesn’t respond well to
this treatment, and if the intention is to heighten the mood it has
precisely the opposite effect. The players trudge on, bless ’em,
but despite their best efforts the cumulative power of that vigorous
finale is lost in a welter of gruff tuttis, unscheduled excursions
and a signal lack of animation and focus.
Goodness, it’s hard to imagine a more arbitrary, misconceived
and soul-destroying Mahler First than this. It certainly doesn’t
augur well for the rest of the series, although I did try to lift
my sagging spirits with fond memories of Maazel’s rather fine
CBS/Sony Resurrection, which I once owned on cassette. The
start of this new account sounds rather boxy, and the opening figures
aren’t as agitated as they could be. That said, there is something
of the tugging undertow that’s missing from Maazel’s Philharmonia
First; most important, he doesn’t pull the music about quite
Despite reservations about the recording at the outset it does improve;
at last there’s colour, detail and a liberating sense of space.
Also, the lovely tunes in Mahler’s well-stocked arboretum are
allowed to bloom and grow naturally, and there’s a warmth and
spontaneity to the performance that’s most appealing. How very
different from that dull, lifeless First, and how polished and alert
the playing. Climaxes are suitably arresting - if a little close -
and there’s only an occasional spike of irritation when Maazel
intervenes with a sudden push or pull. That said, when the performance
is as gripping as this - there’s a fierce concentration here,
an electricity - it’s much easier to forgive such minor aberrations.
Signum split this symphony over two discs - at 92:41 this is one of
the longer versions of the Resurrection on record - with just
the opening movement on CD 1. Happily Maazel captures the lilting
loveliness of the Andante, and once again I was seduced by
the character and point of the Philharmonia’s playing. That’s
especially true of the quieter moments. That the more declamatory
ones are a tad forceful probably has more to do with balances than
with any insensitivity on the orchestra’s part. Still, it’s
a decent recording, and it’s only when one listens to David
Zinman and Jonathan Nott in this work - admittedly both on SACD -
that one misses small nuances and the last ounce of transparency.
The third movement is beautifully articulated, its twists and gurgles
so well caught. There’s a greater sense of engagement on Maazel’s
part, and that communicates itself in the unmistakable smile and geniality
of the music-making. No reptilian aloofness here, I’m pleased
to say, and Mahler’s glorious tuttis are scaled to perfection.
Pizzicato strings, rasping brass and shimmering percussion
are all much better rendered here than in the First. Only in Urlicht
does Maazel succumb to that old bloat; and anyone used to the steady,
transporting stillness of Christa Ludwig or Janet Baker in this signature
song will find Michelle DeYoung’s wide vibrato hard to tolerate.
That’s a small blip - albeit crucial - but what follows more
than makes up for any lingering disappointment. On its first appearance
the Resurrection motif is as spine-tingling as it should be and there’s
a strong feel of impending apotheosis that signals a thrilling finale.
So it proves, for Maazel and his expectant players have already sighted
the gates of Heaven and are intent on gaining entry. There’s
no overweening urgency - if anything tempi broaden just a little too
much - but then all concerned are reminded of their destination and
For someone often accused of being cool and detached Maazel is more
than capable of turning up the heat. The formidable timp-led crescendi
here and the blistering finale of that Concertgebouw Sixth are ample
proof of that. Indeed, he scarcely puts a foot wrong hereafter, and
for the first time I wished I were in the hall for this one. True,
the offstage brass aren’t as atmospherically distant as I’d
have liked, but their effect is not diminished by that. By contrast
the first choral entry is a little too soft and soft edged for my
taste; still, the choirs sing with great passion throughout.
Soprano Sally Matthews isn’t anything very special I’m
afraid, but even though she and DeYoung don’t blend at all well
I doubt many listeners will be underwhelmed by the momentous finale
that follows. Bells. tam-tam and, to a lesser extent the organ, all
make a splendid noise. Indeed, the blaze of light thus produced is
simply blinding. I was just waiting for someone to yell ‘Bravo’
a nanosecond later, but there’s no applause on these discs at
all. For once, though, I’d have been happy to join in the cheers.
So, a woefully inadequate First and a bold, uplifting Second; now
if only Maazel had fielded better soloists this would be one of the
better Resurrections on record. It doesn’t displace Klemperer,
Levine, Young or Nott in myaffections; and then there’s
Mehta’s 1975 Vienna account, soon to be released on Blu-ray
Audio as part of Universal’s ‘High Fidelity Pure Audio’
(HFPA) project. Now that should be something rather special; two fine
soloists as well.
A very noticeable characteristic of Maazel’s new Mahler Third
is its directness. There’s no added sentiment here, no special
pleading. Even then, the emphatic bass-drum thwacks at the start of
the first movement have a hard, uncompromising character that caught
me by surprise. Indeed, Maazel brings enormous clarity and bite to
what is often portrayed as a rather dewy-eyed work. The first movement
especially has a snap and snarl that transfixed me from the start.
These spare textures and telling details are well caught by the analytical
but full-bodied recording.
This symphony is shaping up to be the best in the box; not only is
it so refreshing it’s also persuasively argued. Taut, springy
rhythms sit comfortably with Mahler’s bucolic interludes, and
the extreme contrast between them is just startling. The Philharmonia
are in razor-sharp, virtuosic form, and they respond to Maazel’s
every demand with alacrity. Abbado in particular finds a warmth and
whimsy in the piece that appeals, and while Maazel is less generous
in this respect he still brings out the distinctive sonorities and
heart-lifting lyricism of this most engaging piece.
Mahler’s debt to military bands has seldom been so forcefully
honoured. Side and bass drums very much to the fore and the reveille-like
trumpet-calls are piercingly effective. Another bonus is that Maazel
doesn’t tinker and fret, so this incident-packed first movement
unfolds, as it should, in a long, uninterrupted span. Goodness, Maazel
really slams the door at the end. After that rude, earth-rousing Panic
the meadowed musings of the Tempo di Menuetto come as something
of a relief, although even here Maazel doesn’t relax too much.
The sun-dappled music of this movement is played with a beguiling
blend of affection and ease. As for the Scherzando it’s
phrased and paced with a forensic precision that doesn’t undermine
its essential rusticity. The off-stage horn, ideally distant, is achingly
beautiful too. Surely even Maazel’s sternest critics can’t
fail to be moved by the wondrous performance unfurling here? It’s
a nodal point in this great musical drama and with it comes a powerful
sense that the best is yet to come. That’s why I so wished I'd
been in the hall for this one too. Once in a while a concert or recording
comes along that acts as a valuable corrective, forcing us to hear
a familiar work with new ears. I’d suggest this is one of them.
Thanks to Tennstedt’s all-too-short tenure with the LPO that
orchestra is closely tied to Mahler’s music, yet hearing the
Philharmonia in such radiant form here reminds us of their late-flowering
partnership with the great Klemperer. Back to the present and Sarah
Connolly’s ‘O mensch’, beautifully spun, is kept
aloft by diaphanous sounds from the orchestra. True, she doesn’t
efface memories of Jessye Norman or Anna Larsson, but hers is a plangent,
flesh-and-blood response to these profound, questing texts. As for
the Tiffin Boys, their bright, incisive tones are just what’s
required, and the link to the child-heaven finale of the Fourth seems
stronger than ever.
All too often this symphony’s long-breathed final movement unseams
even the most promising performance, and I hoped that wouldn’t
be the case here. Perhaps Maazel isn’t quite as seamless or
as tranquil as Levine, Tennstedt or Abbado here, but he’s still
wonderfully innig. Helped by rapt, intense playing he marshals
his mighty forces with an unerring, uncanny instinct that marks out
the finest Mahlerians. Really, this is an extraordinary, all-embracing
summation of what is surely Mahler’s most generous and heartfelt
creations. This is a performance full of surprises, so the pole-axeing
peroration at the close comes as both a thrill and a shock. It certainly
left me reeling.
What a ride it’s been; a wilful First, a splendid Second and
now an incandescent Third. Make no mistake, for all his faults - perceived
or otherwise - this octogenarian conductor is a Mahlerian of considerable
consequence. Moreover, I haven’t heard the Philharmonia play
with such sustained intensity in ages, and that’s no accident.
I wasn't sure I could endure yet another Mahler marathon, but if this
one maintains its promising trajectory it will be well worth the effort.
Huge contrasts, great rewards; a cycle to watch.
Masterwork Index: Mahler Symphony
1 ~~ Symphony 2
~~ Symphony 3