Only one of Jonathan Nott’s Mahler performances has so far come my way: that was the Ninth, which impressed me (review
). I’ve seen reviews of several other issues in the cycle by various colleagues and it would be fair to say that the verdicts have been mixed. Perhaps that’s an indication of how difficult it is for one conductor to put across all nine (or ten) of these symphonies with consistency. With these two recordings Nott has reached the end of his cycle - unless he plans to include the Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde,
a comment on the orchestra’s web site
suggests that these are indeed the final releases. This may explain why Tudor has chosen to release these two instalments simultaneously, which is slightly unusual. It will be noted that the recording of the Sixth has been ‘in the can’ for five years; that’s a bit of a surprise but maybe this was deliberate as Nott sees some links between the two symphonies, which he expounds in an essay that’s printed in both booklets.
When I first put Nott’s disc of the Sixth into the player I had a distinct feeling of déjà vu
- or, perhaps, déjà entendu
would be more accurate. The rather frenetic pace reminded me so much of Leonard Bernstein’s 1967 New York recording. Taking down from the shelf Bernstein’s recording, the first I ever bought of this symphony - as an LP - I found that Nott’s opening tempo is identical
to Bernstein’s. I calculate both at 129 crotchets per minute. I’m afraid I can’t settle with Nott’s basic speed. Admittedly, Mahler’s slightly enigmatic marking Allegro energico ma non troppo
is not entirely helpful but Nott seems to have ignored the ma non troppo
qualification and also to have equated energico
with speed. The latter is a point of view, though I do wonder if most of the energy should come from within
The booklet note refers, rightly, to a ‘grim march’ but that effect is somewhat dissipated by Nott’s brisk pace. A further problem awaits us when he reaches the nostalgic passage where the cowbells make their first appearance (11:13 - 14:54). The tempo here is always slower in any performance and Nott treats it quite expansively. That’s fine but the trouble is the tempo relationship
because his slower tempo presents arguably too great a contrast with the speed he’s adopted for the martial music. The movement is extremely well played but to my ears the reading misses the sense of foreboding and impending grim Fate.
The middle movements are more successful. Nott places the Scherzo second. I prefer this ordering though I know that much latter-day scholarship posits a strong case for this movement to be placed third. Much of the music is bitter and tart and this, plus the sardonic humour, surely links this movement and Shostakovich. Nott does this movement well and his orchestra responds with some very acute playing with ample bite to it - the percussion are terrific. The tone of the Andante
is gentle and affectionate at the start but gradually the music assumes a darker hue as, perhaps, Mahler reflects on temps perdu
. Again, I think Nott’s handling of this movement is successful and the playing is distinguished. If I have a complaint it’s that when the ardent, even despairing climax is reached (from 11:04) he presses the tempo a bit too much in his desire to impart urgency.
Tudor’s engineering is first class and though I could only listen to this hybrid SACD - and its companion - as a conventional CD the results were highly impressive. That’s especially true of the finale where the amount of detail and the depth of tone that the recording conveys is marvellous. The oppressive introduction is well laid out by Nott but once the quicker music is reached (from 4:41) doubts begin to creep in. Though the playing is brilliant I just have a nagging sense that the reading doesn’t dig deeply enough. Perhaps one “problem” is that nowadays an orchestra like the Bamberg Symphony can surmount the huge demands of this movement without audible strain. For whatever reason, I don’t get the sense of conflict and stress that the greatest readings of this amazing movement produce; I wasn’t on the edge of my seat. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Mitropoulos (review
) and Tennstedt (review
) but such conductors - and they aren’t the only ones - take one to the edge of the abyss or beyond - in a way that Nott doesn’t. For instance, I don’t feel that he really screws up the tension quite enough in the approach to the first hammer-blow (12:31) or the second (17:00) and after the second blow, in particular, the music doesn’t seethe and boil to the extent that I’ve heard elsewhere. The bleak, desolate coda (27:27) doesn’t seem despairing enough, though the final fortissimo
outburst (29:08) is delivered with vehemence. Others may not share my view and there’s no denying that the music is expertly played.
I mentioned at the start that Jonathan Nott’s Mahler cycle has attracted mixed verdicts and as if to underline that point it seems to me that his recording of the Eighth is significantly more successful than the Sixth. I mean no disrespect to Nott and his performers when I say that the quality of the recorded sound plays quite a part in the success of this recording. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the two mixed choirs more satisfactorily separated on disc. There’s a photograph in the booklet, taken at a performance, which shows how the spacious layout of the Joseph-Keilberth-Saal must have assisted. Also the choirs are heard at a credible concert-hall distance yet with excellent definition and clarity. Furthermore, the organ registers very well. However, the real triumph for the engineers is that they have not only managed to convey successfully the massed forces singing and playing at full tilt but also they’ve captured a tremendous amount of detail. The teeming pages after ‘Accende’ in Part I are reported in perhaps the best sound I’ve ever experienced in this particular passage. At the other end of the scale Mahler’s (and Nott’s) precisely weighted textures in the opening to Part II come across with excellent clarity and, a little later on, the passage for violins, harp and harmonium just before ‘Dir, der Unberührbaren’, is perfectly balanced.
This recording is however about much more than engineering. As far as I can recall I have never heard any of Nott’s solo singers before. Even so, for the most part, they acquit themselves very well indeed. The slight qualification reflects a couple of things. Albert Dohmen sounds a bit blustery in the Pater Profundus solo in Part II but Mahler’s vocal writing is unfairly stressful here. The tenor, Stefan Vinke, sounds pressurised at times - for example, at ‘Höchste Herrscherin der Welt’, though a few moments later he sings ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinne’ with a pleasing mixture of sweetness and ardour.
The adult choirs are superb and, to be honest, little more need be said. They rise to the challenges of Part I magnificently. The singing of the ladies in the Angels episode of Part II is delightfully fresh; and mention must be made of the hushed entry at ‘Alles Vergängliche’, which is wonderfully controlled. The boys’ choir also does well though at times I would have liked a bit more edge to their tone.
The orchestral playing is top quality throughout. Mahler’s blazing tuttis are handled with, you sense, power to spare. The end of Part I is tumultuous, the end of Part II resplendent. However, it’s the delicacy with which so much of Part II is played that impresses as much as anything else. The excellent recording lets you hear so much of what is going on, and what is
going on is often very refined.
Jonathan Nott’s handling of this vast score is very impressive indeed. Part I, in particular, he seems to view in one great sweep - though he is just as adept and convincing in conveying the narrative of Part II. Although I never felt the music was being rushed unduly it was noticeable how often he ensures momentum is maintained, even when Mahler relaxes the pace. The earliest example of this occurs in Part I at ‘Imple superna gratia’. Following on so soon after the headlong rush of the opening, the music of this episode, which introduces the soloists, positively invites more expansive treatment. Rightly, Nott slows down but he ensures that the music continues to flow forward. Some other conductors I’ve heard have slowed down much more at this point - and successfully - but Nott’s approach works. He makes an excellent job of the opening to Part II and he handles the multi-layered ensemble that flows from ‘Blicket auf’ superbly. I’ve only highlighted a few instances but I felt that he was in command of the score - as you’d expect. More importantly, he clearly has a vision of the piece and of the relationship between its two parts and he communicates this vision exceptionally well.
To sum up, I have reservations about Nott’s account of the Sixth Symphony but his version of the Eighth is excellent. In fact it’s among the best I’ve heard and it’s a magnificent conclusion to his Mahler cycle. Tudor’s documentation for both discs is very good and, as I’ve previously said, the recorded sound is outstanding.
Previous reviews: Dan Morgan - Symphony 6
~~ Symphony 8
Jonathan Nott’s Mahler cycle reviewed on MusicWeb International