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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894)
Anja Harteros (soprano)
Bernarda Fink (alto)
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 13 &15 May 2011, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
Reviewed as a 16-bit press download
Pdf booklet does not include sung texts
BR KLASSIK 900167 [2CDs: 80:52]

Mariss Jansons has never been my first choice in Mahler, whether performed with the Concertgebouw or the Bavarian Radio Symphony. (He has a habit of recording rep with one, and then reprising it with the other.) Recently, I compared his RCO and BRSO versions of the Mahler Fifth, and while they’re not bad performances, neither comes anywhere near the best in the catalogue. To me, much of what he conducts is, at best, unremarkable, and, at worst, fatally fastidious. As it happens, his new Bruckner Eighth, at once underwhelming and overdriven, encapsulates much of what I dislike about his music-making. But there are exceptions, notably his 2016 Concertgebouw Mahler Seventh. It reveals a rare geniality, a spontaneity and wit, that really took me by surprise. The playing and sound are superb, too.

As for the ‘Resurrection’, the competition is formidable. In the vanguard must be: the venerable Bruno Walter (CBS-Sony); Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI-Warner, revitalised in its remastered form)1; Leonard Bernstein (I much prefer his CBS-Sony performance with the LSO to his NYP remake for DG); Rafael Kubelík and the BRSO (DG, Audite); James Levine and the Wiener Philharmoniker, live at the Salzburg Festival in 1989 (Orfeo); and Michael Gielen in Baden-Baden (now included in a splendid box from SWR Music). Recommendable among the more recent crop are: Simone Young in Hamburg (Oehms); Jonathan Nott in Bamberg (Tudor); and Gianandrea Noseda in Turin, captured on vintage analogue equipment (Fonè). Of the various videos, Riccardo Chailly’s 2011 Leipzig one is simply outstanding (Accentus). (And no, I’ve not forgotten Claudio Abbado, but I feel he was never at his considerable best in this work.)

Jansons is no stranger to this symphony, which he first recorded with the Oslo Philharmonic in 1990 ( Despite some perverse phrasing, odd speeds and sudden changes of gear, it’s packed with incident and fired with a palpable sense of drama. The Oslo choir and two soloists, the soprano Dame Felicity Lott and contralto Julia Hamari, are good, too. The recording, although decent, gets a little coarse and overbearing in the climaxes. (As his celebrated Tchaikovsky set shows, Jansons’ Norwegian years were auspicious indeed.) I also quite liked his live Amsterdam video, taped in 2009 and released as part of a double-centenary box from RCO Live. It was subsequently issued on SACD as RCO10002.

So, what of this new Munich version, recorded in 2011? The ‘Resurrection’ is one of those works in which the first bars are a sure sign of how the rest will go. If that’s the case, then Jansons’ curiously constrained opening gambit – devoid of all tension – spells trouble. Indeed, Mahler’s distinctive landscape is stripped of all its distinguishing features. Where is the gripping dialectic, the emotional crags and valleys that make this such an eventful journey? Good playing, welcome though it is, doesn’t begin to compensate for such a barren plain. As for the recording, it’s not as impressive as some from this source, as the recent Haitink Bruckner Sixth and Yannick Nézet-Séguin Mahler First so amply demonstrate. Both figured high among my Recordings of the Year.

Alas, Jansons’ second movement is little better. It’s all so tidy, with nothing out of place, yet it displays none of the charm or intuitive rhythmic control that makes that Concertgebouw Seventh such a delightful and rewarding listen. True, the third movement generates some much-needed energy and interest, but without a discernible sense of the symphony’s overarching structure those big, thrilling flourishes lack genuine – as opposed to ersatz – punch, or a true sense. That’s not only frustrating, it’s also fatal to this reading as a whole. As for Urlicht – not a highlight in Oslo, either – the genteel, soft-grained Bernarda Fink (Jansons’ soprano in Amsterdam) is much too distant for my taste. Also, the conductor’s irritating propensity for expressive overload does her no favours here.

Even at this stage, I longed for a late rally, but despite some seismic events – those fearsome timp crescendi in particular – this performance is mired in the key of mediocrity. The soloists are still too far back, which just undermines any sense of excitement at the approaching apotheosis. As if that weren’t dispiriting enough, the chorus don’t sound terribly transported, either. I’m rarely dry-eyed after that magnificent, transfiguring finale, but Jansons’ disappointing sign-off left me utterly unmoved. That said, I’m grateful the Bavarian engineer doesn’t yank these great choral/orchestral climaxes about as mercilessly as his Oslo counterpart does. Some consolation, I suppose, but it doesn’t amount to much in such a sorry context.

Inexplicably and irretrievably dull; avoid.

1 Mid-price single-CD release Warner 2564609029

Dan Morgan


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