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Gustav MAHLER (1833-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1904)
Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden / Kiril Kondrashin
rec. Hans Rosbaud Studio Baden-Baden, January 13-15, 1981
SWR MUSIC SWR19416CD [68:24]

Kirill Kondrashin was one of many Russian conductors to develop a strong commitment to performing the symphonies of Mahler. He recorded all of them as well, save Nos. 2 and 8, while this issue from South-West German Radio represents one of the last performances he ever gave.

Based at Baden-Baden, the Südwestfunk-Orchester is and always has been a fine ensemble of international calibre. Given Kondrashin’s preference for fast tempi in the outer movements of the Sixth Symphony, the players are certainly put through their paces. This opening movement can sometimes invite extremes of interpretation in matters of tempo, despite Mahler’s clear description Allegro energico, ma non troppo. For example, at one end of the spectrum Sir John Barbirolli adopts a doggedly careful pulse, very much influenced by Mahler’s ma non troppo qualification, whereas Rafael Kubelik makes a quite different case, propelled by the priority suggested by Allegro energico. Kondrashin evidently agrees with Kubelik, at every opportunity he pushes the tempo on with an eager vigour. This characteristic is consistently found throughout the work, and particularly so in the powerful music of the finale, where the results are similar and not very beneficial.

As a consequence of his approach to the various Allegro tempi, Kondrashin does lose some of the music’s articulation and power. Details can all too often go for nothing, such as for instance the magnificent writing for the horns in the finale. Their reticence in the balance may be the conductor’s choice, or it may be emphasised also by the recorded balance.

The best things in Kondrashin’s performance can be found in the two inner movements – the Scherzo is placed second – and in the more lyrical aspects of the outer movements, for example the ‘Alma theme’ second subject of the first movement and the atmospheric slow introduction in the finale. Moreover the third movement is beautifully shaped, and its rich-toned climax is particularly rewarding for the listener, with some magnificent playing from the orchestra.

The recorded sound is acceptable enough but is sometimes congested. There is a failure to overcome the challenges of articulation among some of the most complex textures Mahler ever created, particularly in the finale. To be fair, the first of the hammer blows in this movement does make a thrilling effect. However, in general terms the impression made by this performance is that the whole experience generates rather less than the sum of the parts. Articulation and the shaping of phrases all too often suffer in the cause of pressing ahead regardless.

Terry Barfoot

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