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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 6 in A minor ‘Tragic’
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Petrenko
rec. Philharmonie Berlin, 25 January 2020
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BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER BPHR2003645 [77:12]

It is quite remarkable how the music of Mahler can inspire the best of conductors to ever greater interpretive heights. Few other orchestral works in the repertoire can compare in the trial and the reward: the complexity of the music, the specificity of the composer’s directions but also the freedom for expression, the sheer outpouring of emotion when done right. Performances can, albeit simplistically, be separated into two camps; those which touch every moment, and those which look for the whole. The former moulds and manipulates to coax emotion from every note (I would recommend Gielen/SWR and Tilson Thomas/SFSO), whilst the latter may sacrifice a pull in tempo or a crescendo in the moment for allowing the direction of the music to speak (Abbado/Lucerne is truly remarkable and would be my preference across all Mahler 6 recordings). In the right hands, either can deliver the devastating impact that Mahler is, arguably exclusively in the world of symphonic writing, capable of.

The first movement exposition places Petrenko firmly in the latter camp, the sense of forward momentum established from the swift, but never rushed, opening continuing to build throughout moments of fire and calm alike. The Alma theme may not quite reach its transcendent beauty as under Rattle with the same orchestra two years ago, but the cohesion of elements which can so often, under less inspired guidance, sound disparate, is admirable; climaxes send shivers down the spine whilst the listener is always left in the knowledge that more is to come. The development and recapitulation felt somewhat less coherent on first listen (perhaps some sense of too much, too soon?) and the final climaxes perhaps less effective as a result. The superlative orchestral control one has come to expect from the Berliners, however, delivers without fail – the cowbell interlude was as mysterious as any could have hoped for. Throughout the movement, subtle tempo changes employed by Petrenko slip by almost unnoticed but for the momentum and emotion contributed to the whole – skilfully done indeed.

The Andante is placed second here, with Petrenko’s unmannered approach allowing the music to speak for itself – again, perhaps not quite as ethereal as other approaches, with some of the wind passages a touch on the swift side, but a valid approach persuasively presented. The tone of yearning and nostalgia, interspersed with bursts of anguish, increases in intensity as the movement progresses; the orchestra’s tone is truly brought to the fore in this music, and the soaring strings and rounded wind are breathtaking as ever. By contrast, the mercuriality of the scherzo and trio is its defining quality, and Petrenko manipulates tempi and balance well to present a veritable whirlwind of colours and tones – savagery, absurdity, futility, anger, poignancy – teetering on the edge of the deranged without ever losing control.

What, then, of the finale? Once again, the sense of build-up is palpable; from the hushed opening sections to the sweeping, spacious melodies of the exposition, there is always more to come. The development begins with a hushed reiteration of the opening notes, followed by a cowbell interlude. The hammer blows (two, as per Mahler’s final edition) are satisfyingly weighty, made more so as the cathartic release of tension superlatively built up. The volatile recapitulation, a flurry of quotes and tempers, is manoeuvred quite remarkably; the technicalities of conductor and orchestra would be something to behold in and of itself, let alone bringing it together as music.

What struck me most about the last time I saw the Berlin Philharmonic live in the final year of the Rattle era was the passion and zeal of every single musician being translated into movement and, most importantly, sound, of the kind all too rarely seen even in top-tier orchestras today. That spirit has clearly not diminished in the slightest into the Petrenko era; the visceral immediacy of the playing here felt every ounce the equal of that experience, supported by the excellent sound achieved by the own-label engineers. A performance of insight, perhaps not always reaching the level of the greats in a very crowded field, but certainly well worth knowing as an example of consummate musicality by orchestra and conductor.

Colin C.F. Chow



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