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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6
Philadelphia Orchestra/Antal Doráti
rec. live 21 November 1974, Academy of Music, Philadelphia

Antal Doráti (1906 –88) was one of the great conductors of the mid-20th century, as well as a respected composer. Hungarian-born, he became a naturalized American citizen in 1943. In Budapest he studied at the Franz Liszt Academy with Zoltán Kodály and Leo Weiner for composition and Béla Bartók for piano. His links with Bartók continued for many years: he conducted the world premiere of Bartók's Viola Concerto, having made his conducting debut in 1924 with the Budapest Royal Opera. His music directorships included the Ballet Russe, US orchestras in Dallas, Minneapolis, Detroit and Washhington, and in Europe the BBC Symphony, Stockholm Philharmonic, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. Doráti made over 600 recordings, most famously with the Philharmonia Hungarica the second recording of the complete symphonies of Joseph Haydn; he also gave us several recordings of Haydn's operas. He made the world premiere recordings of the vast La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ of Olivier Messiaen, and, more surprisingly, Sibelius's tone poem Luonnotar, with Gwyneth Jones as soprano soloist.

Clearly he deserved his own (UK based) society, whose efforts lie behind the “Antal Doráti live” label and this first release of a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 he gave in Philadelphia in 1974. The label’s catalogue also contains earlier releases of the same work conducted by Doráti in Detroit (ADL 243) and in Cleveland (ADL 244), as well as many other live recordings by Doráti, with other Mahler Symphonies and works by many other composers. Perhaps when Mahler’s revival and reception in the US comes to be fully studied, Doráti will take his place after Stokowski and Walter and alongside Bernstein. Many earlier Mahler performances , including those by the composer, were given in New York. But one notes just from those ADL Mahler 6 listings the cities of Detroit, Cleveland, and in this case Philadelphia – where Stokowski had given the US premieres of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde in 1916! The Sixth though had its US premiere only in 1947 (Dmitri Mitropoulos in New York). By the mid 1970’s there was still Mahler evangelism to be carried on in many cities and Doráti played his part.

If it is not an especially revelatory account of this great work, it is never less than interesting, and times rather more than that. Doráti sounds a completely idiomatic Mahlerian, somewhere in a middle position of what I call the Boulez-to-Bernstein scale of emotional temperature in this music. (Most readers will know which end of that scale is hotter and which cooler, and both are quite valid). The great Philadelphia play pretty well for him, as this was still very much Ormandy’s orchestra in 1974 (his 44 year tenure there had begun back in 1936). At times not every wind player sounds perfectly comfortable at the typically Mahlerian use of the extremes of the instruments’ ranges, but caught live they still don’t today, which could be part of Mahler’s point. Doráti omits the exposition repeat in the first movement, when it is nearly always included nowadays, since the longer timing and weight better matches that of the finale. He makes it work well, as his steady tempo generates quite some cumulative power through to the exciting coda.

Doráti’s scherzo is even steadier, at first at least, than the first movement – the symphony is here given its occasional soubriquet of “Tragic” - and there is an element of a tragic trudge in this performance, and some really fine woodwind contributions. The ‘stumbling’ trio, which Mahler said represented his children at play, is done with a rather touching hesitancy. The Andante thus comes third not second, which in the mid-1970’s would have seemed normal, though it remains a debating point and nowadays both options are heard live. (Alas no-one told the people preparing the draft booklet for my review copy, which lists it as played second, but perhaps that will be sorted out for the released version.) It is a lovely account of Mahler’s greatest slow movement (well, at least until the finale of the Ninth Symphony). There is a flowing tempo, not a mournful adagio, with plenty of detail brought out without fussiness or eccentricity. The soaring climax at 13 minutes in could not be better phrased or arrive with a more telling sense of inevitability, of growing from all that came before. The finale has a slight sense of some players tiring towards the end of such a long and presumably not that familiar a piece, but it still makes its impact, provoking the deserved applause which the recording retains.

The main problem here is undoubtedly with the recorded sound. It is basically truthful and the orchestra internally well-balanced, thanks no doubt to Doráti’s work in rehearsal. But it is rather thin (not much sense of the string section’s much lauded lush tone), and not quite secure, in particular at big climaxes (of which there are quite a few). Thus the sheer mass of sound at some points like the build-up to the first hammer blow in the finale (11:38) gets uncomfortable, with a sense of the needles going into the red on the recording equipment. There is also in the first movement (4:30) a brief but troubling fading of the sound, a momentary signal drop-out perhaps. And at the very end of the finale, from 26:12 right through till the close of the work, there emerges a curious continuous clicking, like a troublesome refrigerator. Perhaps this was taken from a domestic recording, but without a full booklet note with information about the recording’s source one cannot be sure.

So a disc for the Doráti admirer, who will not be disappointed with the conductor’s work here, and a valuable document for the archive of Mahler’s US reception, and the Philadelphia orchestra’s part in it. But not one for the general collector or anyone looking for their first Mahler Sixth. Thanks in part to performances like that preserved here, there are countless excellent alternatives to be explored elsewhere on this website.

Roy Westbrook

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