Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-05) [85:10]
Philharmoniker Hamburg/Simone Young
rec. live, 22-23 April 2007, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg DDD
OEHMS CLASSICS OC413 [40:59 + 44:11]
I’ve heard one or two discs by Simone Young and her Hamburg orchestra before and I’ve been impressed. Those were of Bruckner symphonies - the Second (review) and the Fourth (review) - but I’ve not previously heard her in Mahler (my colleague Dan Morgan was very impressed with her Resurrection symphony - see review). I was a little surprised to fine Oehms issuing this set when they’re in the middle of a complete cycle of the symphonies with Markus Stenz but then I saw that the recording was made over five years ago. I wonder why such a fine performance has been ‘in the can’ for so long.
Over the years there has been quite a debate about the ordering of the middle two movements of this symphony. Most, though not all, performances I’ve heard have placed the scherzo second but Simone Young is one of those who plays that movement after the Andante moderato. In so doing she follows the ordering which, it seems, Mahler himself came to prefer; even though he originally intended the scherzo to come second he changed his mind prior to giving the first performance, at which he placed the slow movement second. This is not the time or place to go into this question; the arguments are rehearsed by Tony Duggan in his survey of recordings of the work. Like Tony I prefer to hear the scherzo second but I recognise and respect the views of those who think to the contrary and, as Tony said, it has to be left to each conductor to make the choice.

The recording is from concert performances, though there’s no audience noise - would that British audiences were so silent! - and there’s no applause at the end. The performance gripped - and held - my attention from the outset. I like Simone Young’s basic tempo in I: it’s expertly judged and neither too fast nor too slow. That of itself makes an immediately favourable impression. The orchestra makes a good sound, which is well reported by the engineers. The exposition repeat is taken, as most conductors do nowadays, and the performance is characterised by good energy and rhythmic definition. There’s one small thing that puzzles me. At 12:08, just before the cowbells interlude, the violins seem to drop out of the picture momentarily. It’s over and gone in a second and I wonder if something went slightly awry in the editing. The nostalgic cowbells passage that follows is very atmospheric, though perhaps taken just a fraction too slowly. However, the relaxed pacing gives us the chance to admire some excellent solo woodwind work. The principal horn also excels hereabouts and in many other solo passages during the work. Indeed, the whole horn section, so crucial in this symphony, is on tip-top form throughout. After this dreamy passage, when the tempo picks up again (15:47) the music fairly bounds along and from here until the end the performance is thrusting and dramatic.
The Andante moderato is beautifully sung. The passages of lyrical nostalgia come over very well but later on so, too, do the moments of ardour. The playing is excellent; the string tone is consistently pleasing and there is much fine woodwind work. I find Simone Young’s way with this movement very persuasive: there’s lots of gentle calm but when the temperature of the music rises (for example from 11:56) she brings out the passion - and the insecurity? - that Mahler put into those pages.
She invests the scherzo with just the right amount of weight; sufficient to bring out the dark side of the music but not so much as to compromise the sparkiness of the sardonic side of things. As in the first movement, there’s excellent rhythmic definition and good use is made of accents to characterise the music. One advantage of hearing the scherzo third is that as it reaches its end the music dissolves into fragments and eventually stutters to a halt in the depths. Thus it bridges to the sepulchral stirrings at the start of the finale.
In this last, massive movement Simone Young may not quite plumb the emotional depths that, say, Klaus Tennstedt explores (review) but, then, his reading is wholly exceptional and may not be to all tastes. As it is, I think Ms. Young hands the enormous span of this movement very well indeed. Her tempi are well judged and she inspires the orchestra to play with huge commitment - and precision. The brass, in particular, seem tireless in the face of Mahler’s huge demands on them. The first two hammer blows (12:01 and 17:45) are the occasion of massive climaxes, as they should be, and the way in which the ground is prepared for each of them is very impressive. In the four or five minutes that lead up to the third hammer blow (27:54) the music seethes and boils yet the conductor clearly retains tight control. Yes, I did refer to a third hammer blow. Mahler excised that from the score after conducting the first performance, slightly re-orchestrating at that point. In the booklet it says that “like other Mahler interpreters” Simone Young restores the third blow. There’s a clear implication in that phraseology that this is common practice but in my experience not many conductors do include the third blow. I have no strong feelings on the matter, though I would just observe in passing that it seems a little inconsistent to observe Mahler’s last thoughts in respect of the ordering of the middle movement but not to do so in respect of this hammer blow. The coda (from 28:37) is bleak and gaunt, bringing to an end a very convincing reading of the finale and a very fine performance of the symphony as a whole.
The recording reproduced very well on my equipment and seemed to me to convey the orchestra’s sound with clarity, impact and atmosphere. I’ve had some reservations about the recorded sound on a couple of Oehms’ Mahler recordings for Markus Stenz, notably those of the First (review) and Fourth symphonies (review), where I felt that for all the excellent clarity of the sound there was occasionally an insufficiently realistic concert hall perspective and the listener was placed a bit too close to the orchestra. There are no such issues here. The sound has punch, when required, and presence; I felt as if I had a very good seat in the hall. Yet, interestingly, the same technical team of producer Jens Schünemann and engineer Christian Feldgen is responsible both for this recording and for the Stenz series. Perhaps the Hamburg Laeiszhalle offers a more sympathetic acoustic than the Kölner Philharmonie or perhaps the presence of an audience, which changes the sound properties of a hall, has made a difference.
Simone Young’s Mahler Sixth enters a crowded field - in the booklet we learn that, according to one discography 42 recordings of the piece were issued between 2000 and 2012, which is exactly the same number that were issued in the thirty years following the symphony’s first recording in 1952, which, by the way, was made by Charles Adler. Not only is the field crowded, but also there are some exceptionally fine recordings in the catalogue already. It would be well-nigh impossible to nominate a “best” and I’m not even going to try but this Simone Young recording can stand comparison with most. It’s a distinguished issue.
John Quinn  

A distinguished Mahler Sixth which can stand comparison with most recordings in a crowded field. 

Masterwork Index: Mahler 6

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