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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894; new critical edition by Renate Stark-Voit & Gilbert Kaplan) [88:25]
Chen Reiss (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo)
Netherlands Radio Choir/Klaas Stok
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Daniele Gatti
rec. live, 18 September 2016, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
RCO LIVE RCO17003 [2 SACDs: 22:40 + 65:44]

Dan Morgan wasn’t keen on this performance, but I was looking forward to it, having colleagues who have been to this and subsequent Mahler concerts with the RCO and Daniele Gatti, and who returned singing their praises. John Quinn added his opinion via the Blu-ray edition of this recording just as I was finishing this SACD review, so it seems we are getting through just about every version available. The enjoyment of a live performance doesn’t always transfer onto recordings, but with the quality of this SACD production expectations are high indeed. Orchestral detail is finely etched without sounding too artificial, though there is of course no single seat at the Concertgebouw that would give you this result as a member of the audience. Dynamic contrast is superb, always a vital aspect of Mahler symphonies, with satisfying richness and depth to a sound that nicely blends these beautifully played instruments, but has the clarity to enhance solos and to enable you to pick out details while following the score or just listening out for smaller subtleties. In other words, the ‘live’ atmosphere seems well captured, with a few minor audience noises noticeable in quiet moments such as the first couple of minutes of ‘Urlicht’, but nothing horrendously disturbing.

Presentation for this release is deserving of mention, the two CDs securely housed in the hard covers of a foldout case, the booklet with sung texts completing a package with a pleasant, luxury feel. I am inclined to be a bit more sympathetic to this performance than Dan, but also found myself torn. Like the Hughes H-4, the orchestra makes a lovely noise, but aside from grand spectacle and magnificent effects there is a feeling of the whole thing wanting to take off, but never quite making it over the hedge at the end of the runway. Rather than trudge through great mounds of alternative recordings I brought out my copy of Riccardo Chailly’s 2001 recording with the RCO on Decca (review). Timings between these two are comparable, with Chailly broader than Gatti in the first two movements, a third movement in which Gatti is just a touch longer, and the fourth, over which Gatti takes nearly 40 minutes to Chailly’s 37:18. Agreed, there are recordings with greater impact and electricity than both of these, but it’s nice to compare more or less the same orchestra in the same acoustic, with little traditions such as using the same bit of corridor for the off-stage band.

The acoustic is not the same of course, and Tony Duggan’s comment about the spaciousness of the Decca recording is a side-effect of having no audience. I’m not sure if this was done here, but recording sessions in the Concertgebouw have also been done on the floor of the hall rather than on stage, and with those seats taken out the place becomes quite a cathedral. Chailly’s expansive tempi fit this change in perspective better than do Gatti’s, and where Chailly’s accents and articulation give added inner life to, for instance, the scherzo third movement, Gatti is milder with these and the col legno effects. There’s also a moment at 2:47 where the percussionist’s 16th notes run fast and end up sounding like random beating.

Chailly gets more warmth from his strings in ‘Urlicht’, and my taste for singers inclines more towards Petra Lang than to Karen Cargill’s bigger-boned and more sibilant sound. The solo voice is more forward in the balance on this SACD recording, and loses some of the magic as a result. Interestingly, the effect in the hall will have been quite different. The Volkskrant critic Guido van Oorschot wrote that Gatti “…swaddles his orchestral sound so much, that Karen Cargill’s mild mezzo voice strokes the ears like a gentle breeze.”

The final movement is a monumental achievement that owes some of its power to its ancestor, the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The chorus is a vital element here, entering quietly after the audience has been softened up by Mahler’s ethereally transparent pastoral scenery. Chailly’s recording imported the distinctive sound of the Prague Philharmonic Choir, which has both a melting softness and a core of steel. That special moment of Auferste’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du, with the soprano’s voice floating above those evolving harmonies, is usefully given a separate access point with the Decca release. There is no doubting the glorious quality of sound from the orchestra in this movement, with the final moments enriched with the organ far more than with Chailly. There is more an effect of bombast with Gatti however. I don’t feel the same kind of drama and chills in this more recent recording. The choral entry can be found at 22:30 and the singing is beautiful, but without quite that special character of the East Europeans. This ‘diffuse’ quality can perhaps be put down to the recording, but with so much high quality registration elsewhere this can only be part of the story. Applause is not included at the end of the symphony.

The summary for these outer movements can be kept brief. The crucial Totenfeier first movement is glorious sounding and relatively uncontroversial when it comes to Gatti’s interpretation. It never really had me rending my garments with excitement, but the sound has been rattling around in my head for days so it can’t be that bad. The final movement has some wonderful moments but becomes static and falls apart a little here and there due to slow tempi and a certain lack of shaping when traversing transitions. Another conductor whose timing for the last movement is comparable with Gatti is Leonard Bernstein in his fine sounding 1987 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the New York Philharmonic (review and review), but this fits in with an architecturally grand structure that also sees a longer first movement, and an Andante moderato that goes a good two minutes over Gatti’s timing. This is indeed not an uncontroversial approach, but it’s hard to deny the individualist Bernstein’s transcendent vision and integrity.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has a marvellous history with Mahler, and if you are a fan then this sumptuous SACD release will be tempting whatever any critic says. The problems with any new release of something like Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony are the sheer wobbly heaps of great recordings against which it will have to compete. Have a look at Tony Duggan’s overview of past recordings if you want to orientate yourself, bearing in mind that numerous versions have appeared since this was published in 2006. I like his quote that “Great Mahler performances and recordings hit you full in the face.” You will have to ask yourself if this one does or doesn’t, but my boxing gloves stayed in their drawer.

Dominy Clements

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan (CD) ~ John Quinn (Blu-ray)



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