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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’ [81:11]
Ileana Cotrubas (soprano); Christa Ludwig (contralto)
Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Zubin Mehta
rec. February 1975, Sofiensaal, Vienna.
German text, English and French translations included
DTS-HD Master Audio; 2.0 Stereo – PCM
DECCA BD-A 478 5030 [81:11]

My colleague, Dan Morgan, has commented very favourably about this recording on several occasions and the late Tony Duggan was pretty complimentary about it in CD format (review). So, when I saw that Decca have released it in BD-A format I succeeded in persuading myself – admittedly without too much difficulty - that the new format was sufficient justification for acquiring a copy, despite the indecently large number of recordings of this symphony that I already own.
I’m glad I did for it’s a most impressive performance. Mehta’s reading of the big first movement is quite swift – or, perhaps, a better word would be ‘mobile’. He ensures that the main march material keeps moving forward purposefully. Generally he emphasises the first word in the tempo marking Allegro maestoso, whereas some conductors veer towards the second of those words. Yet though the basic pace is quite brisk things don't feel unduly hasty – and certainly not in any way lightweight. I think this is partly due to the sharp rhythmic definition that Mehta secures and partly a question of the impressive weight of tone from the Wiener Philharmoniker. Mehta ensures that the slower episodes make their presence felt but he doesn’t linger over them unduly. The only point in the movement where I part company with him is between 10:51 and 12:14. He takes this passage very slowly indeed – I can’t recall ever hearing it played this way. The effect is lumbering and Mehta has to make a rapid accelerando at the end of the section to get back up to tempo. Overall, there’s plenty of tension in this urgent reading and I was gripped by it.
The basic tempo for the second movement is steady, even sturdy. Ideally, I’d welcome just a bit more forward flow. However, the burnished sound of the strings – especially the violas and cellos – is very seductive; the Viennese strings are a definite asset in this movement. I relished the razor-sharp playing in the third movement and the premonition of the finale is a thrilling moment. Arguably Mehta doesn’t relax quite enough immediately after that passage but it’s not a major issue.
Christa Ludwig’s rendition of ‘Urlicht’ is simply marvellous. Her tone is lustrous and she sings most expressively. The accompaniment that Mehta and the orchestra provide enhances Ludwig’s fine singing. The start of the vast finale is apocalyptic and once the opening tumult has subsided we hear the offstage horns as if from an immense distance. I’ll talk about the sound in a moment but the way that the Decca engineers handle these offstage effects is mightily impressive. Mehta’s reading of the finale is tremendously exciting. He makes the drama come vividly to life but without hysteria: this is controlled theatricality. The summons of the große Appell sounds from far, far away. There’s one moment of disappointment: Mehta has the choir start singing immediately the last sound from the orchestra has died away. The entry itself is properly hushed but if he’d held back for just a few seconds – as usually happens – the moment would have been heart stopping. Out of curiosity I spot-checked this moment in another Mehta recording I have. This is the performance that he conducted in March 1982 as the 10,000th concert of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; it’s included in the orchestra’s Mahler Broadcasts set, which is mentioned by Tony Duggan in his Mahler symphony survey. I haven’t listened to this 1982 performance for quite some time – I must do so again - but I found that here Mehta does make a slight pause before the choir starts to sing. I wish he’d done the same in Vienna.
However, once the choral part of the movement is underway one forgets that error of judgement. The Wiener Staatsopernchor sings magnificently and both soloists are excellent. Mehta builds the last few minutes superbly and the final exultant ‘Aufersteh’n’ is absolutely thrilling.
So, this is a very fine account of the symphony but what about the sound? I’ve not heard the CD incarnation but the BD-A results are superb. This is just the sort of piece to benefit from BD-A, but the new technology would go for nothing if the original source material were poor. In fact, one can but marvel at the quality of sound that Decca were achieving back in 1975. Can this recording really be a few months short of forty years old? The only hint I could detect was that the higher frequencies - the violins especially – seem rather bright. Set against that, however, is a very satisfying bass amplitude. The brass and percussion are reported most excitingly and the recording copes admirably with Mahler’s mighty climaxes. As I indicated earlier, the offstage effects in the finale come off superbly. This is a tribute to the engineers and BD-A really shows their achievement in the best possible light. I see that writing of the recording in its CD format back in 2000 Tony Duggan had some reservations about the sound; he referred to a ‘very compartmentalised sound picture, not as rich in the bass as it could be.’ As I said, I’m not able to make a comparison between CD and BD-A but I didn’t notice the issues of which Tony spoke; perhaps BD-A has corrected them.
Since this recording has been released there have been any number of recordings of this symphony and some of them have been very fine: I think, for instance, of the versions by Jonathan Nott (review), Sir Simon Rattle (review) and, in a very different style, by Klaus Tennstedt (review). However, comparisons really aren’t appropriate since all the opposition is on CD and, so far as I know, this Mehta performance has the field to itself as a BD-A release. Thank goodness, then, that Decca have selected this recording as the first BD-A ‘Resurrection’ for it’s a very good one indeed, both sonically and as a performance.
If you want this symphony in the new format – and BD-A does add an extra dimension to this score – then you can invest in Mehta’s account with confidence.
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Symphony 2