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Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 1
Rafael Kubelik Conducting The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Live recording: November 2, l979)

Symphony No. 6 'Tragic'
Mariss Jansons Conducting The London Symphony Orchestra (Live recording: November 2002)

Review By Max Westler
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CD Number: Audite 95.467

CD Number: LSO Live LSO0038


  I first started listening to Mahler in the dark ages when most mainstream critics routinely dismissed his symphonies as examples of dreadful excess: that profligate Mahler actually had the audacity to compose movements that were longer than entire Mozart symphonies! And thanks no doubt to such reviewers, you had about as much chance of finding a Mahler Sixth or Seventh in a record store as you would today of scoring a truffle in your local 7-11.

Though a few scarce recordings of Mahler symphonies were in circulation, they were mostly second-rate productions. On Vox, a label that seemed to specialize in execrable sound, the first-rate Jascha Horenstein led the Vienna Symphony in a memorable Ninth--a truly heroic achievement given the unwavering ineptitude of the orchestra during that sad period of its history. Meanwhile, on Westminster, Hermann Scherchen gave us performances of Symphonies Five and Seven that seemed to me then (and now) just plain nutty. My prepubescent record collection did include two versions of the Titan Symphony, as the First was invariably called then: Adrian Boult's proper high-tea of a performance, and the Mitropoulos/Minnesota, which was clearly more exciting, but sounded as if it had been recorded in a phone booth. Later I found out why -- it actually had been recorded in a phone booth!

Nowadays there are more versions of any Mahler symphony than you can shake a baton at; but due to my early deprivations I remain unembarrassed by such riches. Can you blame someone who's lived through the depression for always having his apple pie a la mode? Though sometimes I'm not sure how many more Beethoven Fifths or Dvorak New Worlds I have left in me, I'm always happy roll out the welcome wagon for newcomers to the Mahler fold. In the case of these two recent recordings that's especially easy; both performances move straight to the head of the class.


Mahler's First: 1967 Versus 1979

Though I have loved many performances of this work over the years (Bernstein/Concertgebouw, Horenstein/LSO, Judd/Florida Philharmonic, Barbirolli/Halle, and Giulini/Chicago, to name but a few), the DG recording that Kubelik made with in 1967 soon after becoming music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony has remained my first choice. On the title page of his manuscript, Mahler called the First "a Tone Poem in Symphonic Form;" and that's exactly how Kubelik plays it. Though sometimes the conductor's dramatic impulses take him over the top (as they surely do in his Dvorak cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic), here his willingness to take risks, to go for broke, pays rich dividends. No other conductor, not even Bernstein, has been able to sound all the contradictory voices of this work with equal conviction.

But this new release, taken from a 1979 radio performance, is even better. In fact this recording is so good in so many ways that it makes me want to go out on a limb and say something like, "this is the greatest performance of the Mahler First that any of us is ever likely to hear." But I'll simply say that this is as perfect a realization of this challenging work as I've ever heard, and leave it at that.

Overall, this is the same conception as twelve years before, but here everything seems magnified, more vivid and impassioned. In the opening "Spring Without Ending," Kubelik is infinitely patient in moving us from the false-dawn stillness of awakening to the explosion that crowns the hero's coming of age with a giddy rush. In the scherzo, his flexible tempos make all the more dramatic the contrast between the rugged, swaggering landler and the otherworldly beauty of its central waltz. And in the "Funeral March," he's even more boldly expressive in representing the grotesquerie; the influence of Berlioz is keenly felt. In Kubelik's hands this music still has the power to shock and disturb.

It is in the last movement that one hears the most telling differences between 1967 and 1979. For one thing, the contrast between the "Inferno" and "Paradiso" sections is more extreme and thrilling. Though there is no hint of holding back over the course of the movement, Kubelik summons a reserve of sheer power in the triumphal coda that is simply overwhelming. And unlike many conductors, who brashly race forward at the end, Kubelik moves with a steady, remorseless tread that makes every detail count. For once the strings are not lost in the uproar, the winds not outshouted by the brass. Hearing this performance may well spoil you for all others -- you'll find yourself listening for details that aren't going to be there.


Mahler's Sixth

In general, Mariss Jansons favors brisk tempos, clear textures, and tightly organized structures; a direct if not "objective" approach that works better for some composers (Tchaikovsky, Dvorak) than for others (Shostakovitch, Brahms). To judge from recordings, he can be maddeningly uneven: his Sibelius First is as lively and compelling as his Second is uninspiring. In New York, the Philharmonic found him too finicky to be their next music director, and chose instead the black hole of Lorin Maazel -- a decision that I hope they've been revisiting every weekend. By all accounts, Jansons' tenure with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra was a distinguished one, and recently he's been appointed the next music director of the Concertgebouw. I'm not sure what all this adds up to; I'm still trying to get a fix on this guy.

I still haven't heard Jansons' first recorded venture into Mahler: a two-CD set of the First and Ninth Symphonies. The reviews were not all that encouraging. Be that as it may, this new Sixth is as committed and dramatic a performance as one could wish for. In this particular work, Jansons' considerable virtues -- a straight-ahead approach that avoids overstatement and exaggeration -- works to the advantage of the music. For the Sixth is Mahler's most classical symphony, "a textbook example of symphonic sonata structure." Unlike the Fifth that precedes it or the Seventh that follows, the Sixth holds to a form that Mozart and Haydn would recognize: four movements, each in a traditional design. Whereas in his other symphonies Mahler favors outward expansion to the ends of the known universe and beyond, here he tries to "obtain a maximum of different characters from a minimum of original materials."

I'm not sure an 80-minute symphony qualifies as "minimalist," but Jansons' restraint is well suited to the nature of this music, and his interpretive choices are unerringly judicious throughout. His opening is forceful and fleet, but less frantic (less self-consciously "tragic") than either Bernstein or Kubelik. Nor does he exaggerate the contrast between the opening march and the "Alma" theme by melodramatizing the one or sentimentalizing the other. Both are all the more affecting for being understated.

At this point I'm skipping the obligatory three paragraphs on why the andante follows the scherzo in some versions but precedes it in others. Jansons gives us the andante first, and that has always seemed to me the more sensible choice. We desperately need a breath of light and air after the emotional roller coaster of the first movement, and here Jansons seems completely in touch with the lyric pulse of Mahler's only true andante. After that blissful interlude, the scherzo sounds all the more unnerving; and Jansons captures the weight and menace of this deliberately clumsy dance with textures that are luminous and utterly transparent. In fact, I've never heard such wealth of detail in this movement.

The finale is Mahler's longest single movement, a 30-minute span that takes us across a vast range of expression that can sometimes confound even the best conductors. As in the first movement, Jansons trusts to the form, sustaining a remorseless, blazing intensity from first to last with no point-making detours. In this movement especially, the London Symphony demonstrates what a great orchestra it truly is. Remember, we're talking about a live performance here: no spot of tea between takes. By the time the musicians reach the final movement they've been playing this difficult music for fifty minutes! But in this performance there is no loss of concentration or energy; on the contrary, the tension mounts inexorably to the climactic moment when the hero is, in Mahler's words, "felled like a tree."


What About The Sound?

In past reviews, Wayne Donnelly has sung the praises of Tony Faulkner's recordings, and justly so. Here he gives us far and away the best-sounding Mahler Sixth that I have ever heard. No matter how well you claim to know this symphony, you will be surprised by the details this very natural and realistic recording lets you hear. And here's more good news. The LSO Live series rings in at mid-price. So we're talking a great performance and demonstration-quality sound for pocket change. How can you possibly resist?

The sound of the Kubelik/Audite Mahler First is not in that class, but I much prefer it to the 1968 DG studio recording, which is often shrill and unpleasant. As with the recently reviewed Kubelik Bruckner Ninth, there is a convincing sound stage, a sense of depth and spaciousness that is impressive for a radio transcription. Though again I wouldn't have minded some warmth in the strings and a deeper bass, the realism here captures this great occasion in stunning detail and with full impact.



Kubelik Mahler First



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Jansons Mahler Sixth



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