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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 “Tragic” (1903-04)
Essener Philharmoniker / Tomáš Netopil
rec. 2019, Philharmonie Essen, Alfried Krupp-Saal, Essen, Germany
OEHMS CLASSICS OC1716 [2 CDs: 85:10]

In his review, my MusicWeb colleague  broadly welcomed this recording while expressing some mild reservations regarding the lack of drama at certain points in the first movement and the expansiveness of the tempi throughout. I do not propose to reiterate points already made in his review but refer you to it for the details of practical matters such as the movement order, repeats etc. and I endorse virtually all of his observations, including the complaint that the timpani are rather too recessed and that the playing in the first movement, although robust and well-paced, lacks the last elements of thrust and drama found in more vivid accounts. Indeed, I have little which is novel or of substance to add to his review, in that I find our responses to be virtually identical.

One advantage immediately apparent here is the quality of the recorded sound: rich, full, beautifully balanced; I have less of an issue than Robert with the volume level. If tempi are somewhat languorous, that merely allows the tonal beauty and immaculate ensemble of the Essen orchestra to emerge all the more clearly. Netopil opts for the original order of movements, with the Scherzo following the first movement; personally, I prefer the revised order, as there is then a greater contrast and variety with the Andante separating the two similarly percussive marches but I salute the excellence of execution; that Andante is serenely, delicately and ethereally played, displaying great sensitivity to phrasal and dynamic nuance.

The opening to the finale is similarly carefully crafted, generating a suitably menacing ambiance; Netopil displays prudence in pacing it carefully, knowing that he has over half an hour in which to construct a mighty musical edifice, so he does not go for broke too soon and displays Brucknerian patience. I do regret the omission of the third hammer blow, however, even if the second one certainly makes a powerful impact and the whole movement build satisfying to a rousing climax.

Apart from the standard recommendations such as Bernstein on DG, Horenstein, Szell, Levine and Tennstedt, for a really aggressive approach in up-front sound, spectacular for its era, there is Solti – whose Mahler is so often unjustly disparaged or overlooked as crude – fielding a particularly prominent timpani and also Sinopoli in a fine, rarer recording on Weltblick. Ultimately, for all its virtues, there is nothing in particular about this reading beyond its excellent modern, digital sound which gives it any great advantage over any of those, so I would suggest that those default versions remain the best bet, whether you want the weighty grandeur of Bernstein or the steely forensic drive of Szell; both offer rather more characterful and interesting – if very different - interpretations than Netopil does here.

Ralph Moore

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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