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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. 1967-74 (Kondrashin), 2016 (Sladkovsky)
MELODIYA MELCD1002475 [7 CDs: 395:51]

This is an unusual issue, for it unites old archive recordings by Kondrashin and his Moscow Philharmonic with one of Russia’s best orchestras of today under an outstanding conductor, Sladkovsky, who is beginning to build a considerable career with his superbly gifted orchestra.

Mahler has become more popular in recent decades in Russia; indeed, there was an annual Mahler Festival in Leningrad between the world wars, and of course Mahler himself conducted there and Mengelberg and Walter conducted his symphonies in the city. Svetlanov did complete a cycle with the USSR SSO for Chant du Monde in the 1990s. This set is available on Warner Classics and Jazz 2564 68886-2. These were from concert performances and vary both in their interpretation and recording quality, though of course Svetlanov is a conductor who deserves to be listened to in whatever repertoire. As Dominy Clements stated in his review: ‘As a representative of resistance against orchestral androgyny, Svetlanov’s Mahler is a potent statement indeed, and his fans will be glad to see this cycle made available in a single set.’ One can certainly extend that sentiment to this new release on Melodiya. Kondrashin was a great conductor of Mahler and it is to be regretted he never recorded all the symphonies. There are other recordings made during his exile in the West, but here we may make a revealing comparison with these new tapings from Melodiya.

The timings of the symphonies indicate the different approach taken by the conductors.

  No. 1 No. 5 No. 9
Kondashin 48.16 63.07 74.74
Sladkovsky 57.17 71.30 81.15

As is apparent, Sladkovsky’s timings are roughly just under ten minutes longer than Kondrashin’s. This is entirely based on his individual approach to almost all his performances. Kondrashin heard conductors such as Walter, Klemperer, Stiedry and Mitropoulos conducting Mahler symphonies in regular annual Leningrad festivals in the 1930s, and became a dedicated advocate of Mahler throughout his career. Indeed, his final concert on his 67th birthday was of No. 1 with the NDR Hamburg Symphony Orchestra at the Concertgebouw, after which he died from a sudden heart attack at home on 7 March 1981. A recording of this exists and shows the passion and frenzy unleashed by Kondrashin at the podium (EMI 562856).

This close affinity of both these conductors allows us an insight into their own perception of these interpretations, and perhaps a hint of why Kondrashin always adopted a fast tempo throughout his Mahler performances. Of course, other conductors from the Russian school have undertaken Mahler cycles, most significantly Mariss Jansons, and Valery Gergiev. Jansons’ recordings can be adjudged as among the best available, always impeccably performed with intense playing; Gergiev’s with the LSO derive from concert performances and fail to reprise the success of his recordings of Russian repertoire - granted that his most recent tapings with the Munich Philharmonic appear to be important contributions to his discography.

Kondrashin’s recordings were made between 1969 and 1974, have different recording teams, and were remastered for this issue. Melodiya previously issued all his recorded seven Mahler symphonies in 2004 (MELCD1000814). Kondrashin also made a recording of the Fifth with the USSR State Symphony; however, this one is with the Moscow Philharmonic, taped in 1974 with his son Pyotr as producer, who was responsible for his later recordings. Kondrashin’s First symphony is taken very fast, and to my mind he slices off phrases often to their detriment, failing to allow the themes and ideas to engender warmth, instead, adopting a fierce belligerence, more suitable to Shostakovich perhaps but here perhaps intolerable to many Mahlerians, albeit increasing the excitement - something which was a factor in Klaus Tennstedt’s performances. Certainly, Kondrashin attempted to bring out the dramaturgical aspect, and push the musicians to the very limits, but never failed to bring out the exhilaration and elation of the score. The First symphony is traversed in just 48 minutes, some nine minutes quicker than the Tatarstan orchestra; the hurried rhythms and phrasing can be off-putting. The common feature throughout all three symphonies is that Sladkovsky allows the Austrian Lšndler to breathe and giving a more satisfactory performance; his recording on the First is by far the better, also in terms of the musicians that he has at his disposal, in particular the brass section, who are superior to the Moscow orchestra. It does seem that the Tatarstan orchestra are more technically well-equipped than the Muscovites of three decades previously, and the improved digital recording of 2016, plus an excellent acoustic in the venue, make their recordings of much higher quality. The Fifth symphony is brisk in the choice of tempos, often to the disadvantage of the music, although the Adagietto is quick but still remarkably sensitively played by Kondrashin’s musicians.

Alexander Sladkovsky is a conductor new to most western audiences; however, he has become much sought after in orchestras in Russia over the last decade. He studied at both the Moscow and St Petersburg conservatoires, was mentored particularly by Yuri Temirkanov and worked as an assistant to Jansons and Rostropovich in St Petersburg. He occupied several important conducting positions before taking up his appointment in Kazan. His current orchestra was established in 1966 by a leading composer, Zhiganov, and they gave their debut concert in 1967, directed by Nathan Rakhlin, who trained the ensemble into one of high professional standing and was praised highly by Shostakovich. Fuat Mansurov was its chief conductor until Sladkovsky took over in 2010. He has toured with this orchestra to Germany and Austria in 2016, and tours to Europe and the Far East forthcoming. Certainly, his accomplishment in developing the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra into a top-class ensemble is highly significant and underlines his gifts as a fine trainer of young musicians. Unquestionably, the financial backing of this oil-rich republic has helped in acquiring new strings and wind instruments, and it seems most of the musicians are locally born and bred, avoiding the necessity of hiring musicians from any of the big centres. In the eight years’ work with Sladkovsky, they have become a highly proficient and cultured group of musicians, capable of outstanding playing of the western classics as well as their own Russian repertoire. In the booklet, Sladkovsky states that ‘Shostakovich is a continuation of Mahler’, I would put it another way and say that Mahler was the predecessor of Shostakovich. The more we hear of the Russian composer, the more we can appreciate his huge significance in 20th century music, which continues today.

After a few minutes of listening to their recording of the First Symphony, we may clearly hear that the Tatarstan orchestra is outstanding, with some very fine first desk musicians. The level of performance throughout is high, on the same level certainly of the best Moscow orchestras. Sladkovsky has made detailed preparations by coaching his musicians in the way of playing Mahler, through seating arrangements and training his brass department into playing in a Central European manner. There are points when one forgets that one is not listening to one of the great European orchestras, the quality of the strings is so intense, with a golden bloom in the violins. They respond to their conductor with great sensitivity, matching the degree of precision of the best German orchestras, and the feeling of the Lšndler and waltzes which abound is as well treated as by the Viennese. The handling of the turbulence in the stormy Rondo-Burleske in the Ninth Symphony is terrific, as good as in any of Bernstein’s recordings. It is clear that Sladkovsky has this composer close to his heart and knows how to get what he wants from his musicians; it would be interesting to learn how he managed to inculcate the Mahler sound world into his musicians, but here is plenty of evidence that he has succeeded. One of the changes he has introduced for these recordings is in the positions that Mahler as a conductor himself adopted. Notably, Sladkovsky seats all his violins on his left with the violas, cellos and basses on the right and the brass front and right, which is different from his normal seating plan. The acoustic of the Saideshev concert hall is superb, offering the recording team great opportunity to show the musicians at their best. The principal oboe Andrey Shubin, the principal French horn Sergey Antonov, and harpists Jana Lyashko, and Natalya Antonovna could walk into any top-class European orchestra, judging by the performances here.

For instance, the opening of the Fifth Symphony is gloriously announced by the principal trumpet, Dmitry Trubakov, and followed with a superb entrance by the whole ensemble. Throughout, Sladkovsky appears to have judged the complete degree of Mahler’s writing, and is able to produce both subtle changes in temperament and tempo, and acutely searching phrasing and inflections. He seems, too, to have sensitive judgement of the tempos, and rubatos in the string playing and most importantly in the wind department. The principal flute Valeria Porfirieva is excellent in her phrasing, and Dmitry Babintsev as obligato horn in the third movement is wonderfully sensitive.
By the time one gets to the Ninth Symphony, one would not believe this is a Russian orchestra; the achievement of Sladkovsky in raising this orchestra to world-class standards is remarkable. Sladkovsky will continue his exploration of all Mahler’s symphonies in coming seasons and hopefully they will appear on recordings in coming years.

If these performances showcase two quite different Russian interpretations of three great Mahler symphonies, the most revealing aspect is the standard of performance of the Tatarstan orchestra, which can play Mahler as well as it does Shostakovich. In the sixties and seventies, the virtuoso standards were excellent in the former Soviet Union, but they were not always endowed with top class instruments; problems with reeds, strings and brass instruments too were a perennial problem, now thankfully overcome. This superb group of musicians will surely become a frequent visitor to our concert halls in future years, and in Alexander Sladkovsky they have a masterly conductor. Certainly Mahlerians will not be tempted to give up their interpretations by Abbado, Bernstein, or Maazel, but these are rewarding recordings for anyone looking for different approaches to Mahler interpretations, and the Russian take on this great composer. The Melodiya box has an interesting essay on Mahler by Russian musicologist Inna Barsova, and is translated well into English, with informative texts on both conductors and their orchestras.

Gregor Tassie

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank


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