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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major Titan (1888, rev. 1896)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901/04)
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1909/10)
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sladkovsky
rec. 1967-2016
MELODIYA MELCD1002475 [7 CDs: 395:51]

Titled ‘Mahler to the Power of Two’, this seven disc set, recently released by Melodiya, offers side-by-side comparisons of the composer’s First, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies by two distinguished Soviet conductors, Kirill Kondrashin and Alexander Sladkovsky. Despite a fifty year interval between their respective recordings, there are strong artistic ties bonding them together. In each case, their professional paths lay between the cities of Moscow and Leningrad. Central to both men's repertoires are the symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich. Sladkovsky states that “Shostakovich is a continuation of Mahler”, adding that Mahler's symphonies are a “necessary stage, without which Shostakovich is impossible”. Sladkovsky's Mahler follows on in the Kondrashin tradition. He never heard the older conductor live, imbibing his interpretations from treasured and cherished LPs. Alexander Sladkovsky (b.1965) is currently the chief conductor and artistic director of the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra.

The three Kondrashin recordings were previously issued by Melodiya in 2004 as part of an 8-CD set including Symphonies 1, 3-7 and 9 (MELCD1000814). When they were originally released on LP they became collectors' items. The conductor effectively resuscitated the composer's music in the Soviet Union, which had been proscribed since the 1930s. He forged a uniquely individual Mahlerian style, and established himself as one of the greatest conductors of the composer's music in the twentieth century. In December 1978 he defected to the West, seeking political asylum in the Netherlands, whereupon the Soviet regime banned his recordings.

Having listened to these recordings over the past week, it’s striking that the two conductors offer very distinct interpretative approaches, but the comparisons I’ve found very rewarding. Kondrashin’s roughly hewn performances contrast notably with the smoothed out and softer edged readings of Sladkovsky. The older conductor favours swift tempi, which to my ears bring a greater sense of urgency to the music. Never at any time did I feel he sacrifices clarity of articulation, natural phrasing and detail to faster tempi. The performances were obviously well-rehearsed, with dynamic indications faithfully adhered to. In fact, he projects his wide dynamic range laudably. There’s such fervour and intensity in Kondrashin’s performances, which the younger conductor doesn't quite achieve. Here’s one example of the timing differences in the First Symphony.

Kondrashin Sladkovsky
I. 12:32 16:57
II. 7:58 8:37
III. 9:50 12:18
IV. 17:53 19:24

Maybe some will find Sladkovsky's approach more successful in the spellbinding opening of the first movement of the First Symphony. He does create more of a sense of wonder. Similarly, the Adagietto of the Fifth achieves more nobility and breadth of vision in his broader and more spacious traversal. The same can be said for the first movement of the Ninth.

Kondrashin recorded all of the Mahler symphonies except Nos. 2 and 8 for Melodiya. His very last concert was a performance of the First Symphony at the Concertgebouw on March 7, 1981. The orchestra was the NDR Orchestra of Hamburg and, tragically, the conductor died of a heart attack in his hotel room after the performance. This performance has been issued on CD (EMI 562856). I’ve listened to it on Youtube and it’s a stunningly vital performance.

I'm thoroughly amazed at how well the early Melodiya recordings sound. Bright, vital and immediate, the music emerges fresh and satisfyingly defined with regard to orchestral detail. Sladkovsky's traversals were only set down in 2016, so they reap the benefits of state of the art technology and are in first rate sound. For newcomers to Mahler's symphonies, Kondrashin wouldn't be my first recommendation. His recordings would be aimed at more seasoned Mahler lovers. Whilst there is much to appreciate and admire in Sladkovsky's performances, they don't replace my favorite versions of these works: Symphony 1 - Abbado (BPO) and Bernstein (Concertgebouw); Symphony 5 - Tennstedt (live 1988) and Barbirolli; Symphony 9- Karajan (live 1982).

It's worth mentioning for Kondrashin fans that there's a superlative live account of Mahler's Seventh Symphony recorded live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 29 November 1979 and issued on the Tahra label (TAH 451 - review). It was reviewed enthusiastically by Tony Duggan for MusicWeb in 2002, and I fully concur with his sentiments.

Stephen Greenbank

Detailed listing:

CD 1 [48:16]
Symphony No. 1 in D major Titan (1888, rev. 1896)
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
rec. 1969

CD 2 [57:17]
Symphony No. 1 in D major Titan
Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sladkovsky
rec. 2016

CD 3 [63:07]
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor (1901/04)
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
rec. 1974

CD 4 [71:30]
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor
Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sladkovsky
rec. 2016

CD 5 [74:24]
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1909/10)
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
rec. 1967

CD 6 [42:51]
Symphony No. 9 in D major (part 1)
Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sladkovsky

CD 7 [38:26]
Symphony No. 9 in D major (part 2)
Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sladkovsky
rec. 2016



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