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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’ (1888-94)
Anja Harteros (soprano), Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano), Chorus and O. of the Bavarian Radio S. O., Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 13-15 May 2011, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900167 [80:56]

This 2011 performance was originally issued on the Arthaus Musik label on video, both in DVD and Blu-ray formats, and on an 11-CD BR Klassik set of the complete Mahler symphonies featuring several different conductors leading the Bavarian RSO. Jansons also recorded the Mahler Second Symphony in December, 2009 as part of a complete cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, available on video and SACD. Beside these two recent efforts, there was a 1992 Mahler Second from Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos, with which I’m unfamiliar.

The playing here by the excellent Bavarian RSO is accurate, spirited, and fully sensitive to the emotional flow of the music. Jansons phrases the music subtly, not tending toward exaggeration or eccentricity, as happens with so many conductors who seize upon almost any opportunity to make Mahler’s music seethe with agitation, or turn gloriously ecstatic, or wallow in dark tragedy. Some conductors see Mahler’s music as a series of grand climaxes and attempt to italicize even a fleeting temperamental tic that might be alluded to in the score. Mahler’s music is certainly filled with much intellectual, emotional, spiritual and even mystical expression, but it doesn’t need overstatement or exaggeration. And, of course, it doesn’t need the opposite — neutrality. Jansons finds the right balance, providing plenty of drama and intensity, while catching every mood-swing in proper proportion, in the end delivering a most satisfying account of this great symphony.

Overall, Jansons’ tempos throughout the work are somewhat on the brisk side, but sound utterly judicious and the perfect fit for his multifaceted view of the music. The fiery opening movement starts off a bit restrained but gradually develops momentum, the generally dark character seeming to gather strength as the movement proceeds. Jansons deftly contrasts the few peeks of sunlight and bucolic buoyancy with the more menacing and insistent character of the dark music. Notice his use of dynamics: there are many gradations and detail is rarely ever lost because quiet sections are not overly so and because fortes from brass and percussion don’t drown out other necessary orchestral lines. Clarity and balance are superb here.

The second movement, marked to be played “very leisurely”, contrasts the elegance and nonchalance of the folk-like main theme with a busier, slightly menacing string theme that vaguely reminds me of the scurrying string writing in the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Jansons and company bring it all off brilliantly, making you wonder if could be played significantly better. I could write ditto for the third movement: the opening timpani strokes, which will surely wake you from the comparative serenity of the previous panel, are quite potent and lead us to a colorful world, with especially the wind instruments — brass, clarinet, oboe, English horn, bassoon — commenting on and taking part in the fun and mischief. You don’t often read about how excellent an orchestrator Mahler was — Richard Strauss seems to get the accolades from musicologists — but Mahler was just as adept, and this movement in particular delivers solid evidence. And how well the colorful writing emerges in this vigorous, spirited account.

The Urlicht is beautifully sung by Bernarda Fink and the orchestral accompaniment is appropriately subdued and nicely played. Jansons phrases the Finale so that it builds slowly with tension and a sense of great struggle, as the music yields several powerful climactic moments only to keep building again, ultimately toward the final epiphanic climax at the end, one that is both potent and celestially triumphant, not overdone, however, with glacial pacing or excessive rubato, faults that can sabotage this ending. On the orchestral side then, everything sounds totally convincing here, and on the vocal end of things soprano Anja Harteros sings wonderfully as does Ms. Fink, once again. The BRSO chorus turns in a splendid performance as well.

Overall, this is an excellent Mahler Second then, but one that must compete with other fine ones in a very crowded field, including Jansons’ own earlier account with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra which, if I can judge from sizable excerpts I managed to hear, is similar. Among the others there are some very good recent ones — Zander/Philharmonia (2013) on Linn (SACD), Paavo Järvi/Frankfurt RSO (2015) on C Major (Blu-ray and DVD), and Chailly/Leipzig Gewandhaus (2011) on Accentus (Blu-ray and DVD). There are notable older recordings by Kubelik on DG (1969) leading this same Bavarian Orchestra and Chorus, a performance which is a little scrappy, and Solti/London SO on Decca (1966). But of course, the sound reproduction on these two is not quite up to today’s standards. All this makes choosing a favorite very difficult, but I’ll say this: this new version by Jansons will greatly please most listeners. The recordings by Järvi and Chailly are also quite impressive in the more expensive video realm. For those who prefer a slower Mahler Second, the Zander SACD will do just fine. Your move.

Robert Cummings

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Michael Cookson

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