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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No 6 in A minor, ‘Tragic’
rec. 2016, Dom Zvukozapisi (House of Audio Recording), Moscow SONY CLASSICAL19075822952 [84:20]
I must confess that I thought long and hard about whether or not to ask to review this disc. On the one hand, I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing a Mahler symphony played by the period-instrument ensemble, MusicAeterna, and conducted by someone who has won a reputation as something of a provocative iconoclast. On the other hand, I’d read widely diverging views about recordings and live performances conducted by Currentzis: some of my colleagues on both MusicWeb International and Seen and Heard have found his performances stimulating while others regarded them as wilful. My own experience of his work has been limited to a disc of music by Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, which included the most self-indulgent and wayward account of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that I have ever had the misfortune to hear (review). In the end, though, curiosity won out, and when the disc arrived I resolved to listen to it as objectively as I possibly could.
I’m always very wary of using the title ‘Tragic’ when it comes to this work, even though I believe that the label was used at times by Mahler himself. Sony Classical use the title for this recording and this time I’ve decided to include it because Teodor Currentzis has a rather interesting view of the title, which he expounds in the notes. He traces the use of the word back to classical Greek theatre and the notion of “the chorus and the protagonist…This symphony is a form of ancient drama” and he applies this particularly to the finale. I’d need to quote Currentzis’s views in extenso to give a proper flavour of his take on the work and anyone acquiring the disc is urged to read the essay in full. He certainly offers some interesting thoughts on the symphony.
His views on each of the movements constitute the entirety of the notes and while his opinions are very interesting to read, there’s something missing. I know that MusicAeterna originated as a period-instrument ensemble and the group has made a good number of HIP recordings. What I’m unable to say with any certainty, despite assiduous internet searching, is whether period instruments are used in this performance. The clarity of textures is one thing that suggests to me that such instruments are used. On the other hand, I don’t hear much evidence in, for example, the sound of the brass. (Given that the orchestra is Russian, I had half-expected to hear some of the characterful woodwind sounds and the vibrato-rich horns and brass that can be experienced on Kondrashin’s 1978 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic, but there’s no sign of such timbres. The Kondrashin reading, by the way, is completely unrecommendable on account of excessive haste: he omits the first movement repeat and dispatches the entire symphony in 65:30.) It would have been good if the conductor could have made some comments in the booklet about the stylistic approach to the performance. An opportunity has been missed here.
MusicAeterna here fields a pretty large string choir (18/18/17/16/11) and note in particular the substantial number of both violas and celli. The violins are divided left and right and my ears suggest to me that the celli are placed to the left of the first violins and the violas sit between them and the second violins – again, comment on the layout of the strings in the documentation would have been a great help. I mention all this because one very pleasing feature of the recording is the clarity with which all the various string lines can be heard – and the clarity of the balance between the strings and the rest of the orchestra is also admirable; this despite the rather resonant studio acoustic in which the performance has been recorded. This all-round clarity will have been assisted by the microphone placing, I’m sure, but the musicians must also take their share of the credit. One thing for which the musicians can take sole credit is the superb quality of the playing throughout the symphony.
Mahler marks the first movement Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig. The German element of the instruction can be translated as “vehement, but sturdy”, an injunction which is followed here. It’s the Italian words that have caused problems for some conductors. Does “energico” relate simply to speed – as Leonard Bernstein seemed to think – or is it as much to do with inner energy? And the “ma non troppo” qualification can also lead to trouble if, as Barbirolli did, it’s taken to extremes. I think Teodor Currentzis gets the initial speed just right and his purposeful, energetic approach to the music gets things off to a most encouraging start. He eases the tempo back, rightly, for the quiet, nostalgic episode that precedes our first exposure to the ‘Alma’ theme. That theme itself doesn’t surge forward as ardently as I’ve heard from some conductors; instead the presentation is warmly romantic. Currentzis then adopts an expansive approach so that quite a significant accelerando is needed to re-establish the opening speed (5:12). The cowbells episode (12:36-16:18) is beautifully played but the tempo is very deliberate – probably too deliberate. The result is very dreamy but arguably the effect is overdone. The cowbells can be heard clearly but I’m inclined to think that here – and elsewhere – the celeste is over-prominent. After this nostalgic dalliance Currentzis urges the music forward at an electrifying pace and there’s terrific bite in the playing, not least from the strings. However, another calmer passage of music (19:31-21:27) tempts the conductor again to slow the pace very significantly. The result is that the passage is warm and yearning but is so expansively shaped that at one point (around 21:00) there’s a serious risk, not entirely avoided, of the music becoming becalmed. The coda (from 23:41) sweeps along urgently. I’ve pointed out the tempo variances in some detail because this feature of the performance could be make or break for some listeners. For myself, I found Currentzis’s way with the movement provocative but he still compelled my attention.
He plays the scherzo second, an ordering which I prefer though I know there’s a considerable weight of scholarship in favour of the scherzo coming third. Wuchtig (weighty) is the marking and that’s what we get in this performance. The music sounds pungent and sharp-edged. The way Currentzis and his orchestra deliver this movement really does have the whiff of authenticity about it, for example in the use of portamento and the observance of sharp, often unexpected accents. As I listened, I felt that the music had a pronounced Middle-European flavour to it. The wildness and originality of Mahler’s scoring is superbly put across and not only did I greatly enjoy the performance per se but also, I wondered – as I had done several times during the first movement – what these musicians might make of the Seventh Symphony with its highly original orchestral palette. This performance is full of vivid contrasts and a plethora of sharply-edged detail comes through – at times one has an impression of goblins thumbing their noses. I struggle to remember when I’ve heard a more vivid account of this remarkably imagined movement.
The opening pages of the Andante moderato are warmly and affectionately phrased. The soft-grained sound of the strings is very attractive and later on there are some excellent woodwind and horn solos to savour. Currentzis plays the music in a very romantic way – which is right and proper – and his approach is lingering, though not excessively so. At 6:38 we hear from the cowbells again and their contribution is very well balanced. The extended climax section (from 11:04) is really ardent and the closing pages are tenderly accomplished. With superb, highly refined playing from the orchestra, this movement is a conspicuous success.
The symphony’s finale is vast but even so I was surprised when I opened the booklet for the first time and spotted a playing time of 34:06. This is some three or four minutes longer than I’m generally accustomed to hearing, though there are precedents: Bernard Haitink, for example, clocked in at 34:10 in his live 2007 Chicago recording (CSO Resound CSOR 901 804) and Jascha Horenstein at 33:12 (review). The explanation for Currentzis’s expansive overall timing lies in some substantial tempo variations, as in the first movement. The Sostenuto introduction is taken at quite a deliberate pace but I detected no loss of suspense and tension. Furthermore, I relished the detail that Currentzis and his players allow us to hear without compromising their collective vision of the ‘big picture’. When the allegro is reached (5:15) the pace becomes very urgent, the playing razor-sharp. There’s a nostalgic cowbell episode (9:35-10:40) and Currentzis adopts the same approach that he used for similar episodes in the first movement; he sees it as a dreamy passage and paces it accordingly. Neither of the two hammer blows is absolutely overwhelming, though both make their mark. After the first (9:13) the passage immediately following is taken at an express pace, while after the second (17:54) the music fairly seethes. However, when Mahler revisits the material we heard in the movement’s introduction, and the pace inevitably slows, I think Currentzis overplays his hand and the danger of a loss of tension isn’t entirely avoided. The last ten minutes or so convey, in this performance, a genuine sense of struggle. Magnificently played, the music is absolutely gripping. The coda (from 29:08) is not as bleak as I’ve heard from some conductors – Dimitri Mitropoulos, for instance – but this, I think, is at one with Currentzis’s interpretation of tragic catharsis: “After this symphony you don’t feel destroyed. You are even more alive than before. You are better than before.” I’m not sure I agree with that view of Mahler’s finale – but maybe I’m too accustomed to the way in which the likes of Mitropoulos and Klaus Tennstedt take the listener to the edge of the abyss.
So, how do I sum up this account of Mahler’s Sixth? To employ again a word I used when discussing the first movement, it’s provocative. I don’t agree with every interpretative decision that Teodor Currentzis makes but he has certainly made me think again about this awe-inspiring symphony. I can see this being a Marmite performance that will polarise opinion but I urge Mahler devotees to hear it and to evaluate it for themselves. Currentzis offers us a radical, even revisionist, view of Mahler’s Sixth but, then, the composer himself was nothing if not radical. Even during the passages when I was less than wholly convinced by the performance, I found it a compelling experience: my attention was gripped from start to finish. As I’ve commented earlier, the playing of MusicAeterna is magnificent throughout.
The recording allows one to hear a tremendous amount of inner detail though it took me a little while to achieve the optimum volume setting. The studio acoustic is a bit too resonant to be ideal but overall the recording is satisfactory.
Reviewing this CD has been a most intriguing experience. This is the first Mahler recording from MusicAeterna and Currentzis, though I believe his music has featured quite often in their concert repertoire. I should be interested to hear them in more of his music.