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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1904, rev. 1910) [80:20]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
rec. live, March 2010, Oslo Konserthus

I'd not heard Jukka-Pekka Saraste's previous Mahler outing -- a Fifth Symphony for Virgin Classics -- but he's quite the talented Mahlerian. In this concert recording, he brings a no-nonsense manner to the Sixth. The performance is marked, above all, by a sense of flow: the music moves along, expressively but straightforwardly. In the Andante moderato, for example, Saraste maintains a through-line as he moves into the C major episode at 7:55, which most other conductors reflexively mark as a separate idea. (I remember an acting teacher telling his students, "Don't act the punctuation"; so, too, for conductors, don't conduct the double bars.)

Here and there, the conductor -- perhaps in his concern to "keep the show moving" -- elides or ignores a requested "comma" or pause between sections. An unmarked acceleration towards the end of the Andante produces some uncertainty. More problematically, in the Finale, he treats Nicht schleppen ("Don't drag") as a cue to get faster, which it isn't, quite -- Mahler certainly knew the marking Etwas drängend, which he even uses in this movement. Even as Saraste pushes forward, however, the sonorities carry the requisite tonal weight.

Neither is Mahler's counterpoint short-changed. Saraste uses dynamics and balances to fashion a wide array of active, contrasting textures from the alert Oslo Philharmonic, giving extra attention to the motivic interjections and imitations that enrich the textures. Thus, at 6:04 of the Scherzo, the horn and tympani state the motto rhythm quietly but clearly. The layered motifs in the Andante, as the passage after 1:59 builds, are cleanly projected. In the Finale's low chorales, the clarinet colours dominate more than usual.

The first movement, with springy dotted rhythms, is a crisp, forthright marziale; the "Alma" theme is solidly grounded. The development builds steadily, even as Saraste sometimes underplays its obsessive march; the coda moves without feeling driven. The Scherzo, here played second, is full-bodied, robust, and firmly accented; in the gently pastoral trio sections, the meter changes scan quite naturally. As suggested, a long line links the various episodes of the Andante moderato; the recapitulation is an impassioned culmination. In the long Finale, the marches step smartly, but the broader musical intentions are blunted -- perhaps the players were tiring -- and, oddly, the acoustic "space" between the strands is cloudy. As can happen, the movement hits a brief lull, here at 20:05.

Until then, however, the orchestra is impressive. The string sections produce a tapered, uniform tone, and the brasses are solid. A few woodwind attacks are smudged, but the principal soli are consistently sensitive and expressive. They intone their passages in the Andante with plaintive delicacy -- it's refreshing to hear really quiet reed playing. The engineering is good, as long as you're judicious with the gain. For what it's worth, the cowbells in the Andante are clearly, crisply defined in the left channel.

Saraste's is certainly one of the best Sixths I've heard in years, comparable to the very fine analogue Tennstedt (EMI) and the venerable Szell (Sony). Still, it must yield to Boulez (DG), who, with the advantage of studio sessions, obtains impeccable balances from the Vienna Philharmonic, and benefits from DG's gleaming, translucent reproduction.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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