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Recordings

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 6
21 Mar 2007

MAHLER: Symphony no. 6

Based from concerts given on 22 August, 7 September, and 8 September 2005, this recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is the latest release of the Concertgebouw’s own RCO Live label.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 6

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Chief Conductor.

RCO CD 06001 [2CDs]

$21.99  Click to buy

A two-CD set with the first three movements on one disc and the Finale on the second, the release includes the world premiere recording of Hans Werner Henze’s Sebastian im Traum: Eine Salzburger Nachtmusik nach einer Dichtung von Georg Trakl (based on performances given on 22 and 23 December 2005). Despite the overt reliance on three of Trakls’ poems and the inclusion of the texts with the recording, it is a creative pairing with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

The latter work, Henze’s Sebastian im Traum is a three-movement symphonic work that lasts about fifteen minutes. While the material by Henze included in the liner notes does not quote the composer as making any direct connection with Mahler’s music or, specifically, his Sixth Symphony, it is difficult not to view Henze’s piece as influenced by Mahler’s symphonic style. Sebastian im Traum is an instrumental work stands between the explicit program implied in the texts and the abstract idiom denoted by the tempo markings in the movement titles, and in this sense it resembles the symphonies from which Mahler had withdrawn his programs and that are still discussed in terms of those connotative texts. Existing between those worlds of meaning, Henze’s work benefits from the references found in Trakl’s verse. The three poems suggest a coming to maturity, and awakening suggested by the setting in Spring at the celebration of Easter, and Henze reflects that perspective in the structure of his music. The style of the piece reflects the dissonant idiom Henze used in his other music, but the clearly defined thematic units and control of tension make the piece accessible. The allusion to Salzburg's night music in the subtitle adds a further connotation that brings up association with the lighter orchestral music of Mozart. Notwithstanding those references, the music merits attention on its own merits. In fact, the middle movement, a Scherzo-like piece, is perhaps the most intriguing for the various ideas Henze expresses in it, and its position at the heart of Sebastian suggests its place in the structure of this work. A fine example of new music, it is a work that merits repeated hearings.

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony has received attention in recent years for the lively discussion in various circles about the order of the inner two movements. Eveline Nikkels mentions this in the notes that accompany recording, and it is important to realize that such concern transcends opinion or preference, but speaks directly to the need for a clearer understanding of performance practice with Mahler’s music and a practical knowledge of source materials that can be used in preparing reliable editions for conductors like Mariss Jansons and others to used. Mahler intended to have the Scherzo precede the Andante movement, but changed the order for the premiere. However the first edition reflects his original thought, rather than the way he performed the throughout his lifetime and as found in the revised edition of the score. For various reasons, the critical edition has been problematic in not reflecting this, and only recently has a new edition been planned to reflect this. In the attempts to convey the order of movements that represents Mahler’s intention, it is important, too, to understand the composer’s conception of the work at other levels. In the various revisions that Mahler pursued after the completion of the fair copy, the publication of the music, and the revisions that resulted from the first performances, he attempted to make the written score express the musical thoughts that transcend mere notation. The notation is like the text of a play that talented directors take to the stage to make it come alive for new audiences, and conductors have the same responsibility to create the music anew with each performance. Mahler’s attention to detail should not be construed as obsessive in his pursuit of nuance, but a laudable effort to remove as much doubt as possible so that others can render the score with the musical intensity that the composer wanted.

That stated, Mariss Jansons offers a compelling reading of the first movement, with the driving, marchlike rhythm with which the piece opens not overpowering the thematic material that it underscores. Likewise, Jansons does not overplay the shift from the major to the minor mode melodramatically, and his understatement draws the listener closer to the passage. That effect supports a transition that some conductors force into a more overt separation of ideas. All in all, the lyrical qualities of the movement emerge quite clearly, without appearing out of place. It is reassuring to hear this movement performed with sensitivity not only to the loud and soft portions, but also to the crescendos and diminuendos that are part of the content, especially in the development section in which the interplay of ideas must occur to resolve when the recapitulation occurs. The recording quality is spacious enough to capture details like these that are essential to Mahler’s style and the interpretation of this complex movement.

With the Andante, the recording presents a very forward sound that brings the listener close to the sound. It is not so much loud, as immediate, as if the sound were recorded from the stage rather than the hall. Such an intimate perspective is not without some advantages, as it helps to clarify the details that Jansons brings out. The woodwinds in the first part of the movement are clear, but sometimes the horn sounds seem to overbalance the rest of the ensemble. Again, it may be from the recording technique, which seems to create a vivid sound that sometimes benefits from more distance. Nevertheless, Jansons gives the movement shape and direction, as he masters the entrances that should be anything but jarring. The dynamics levels are, perhaps, more vividly audible in this recording, and they support the structure of the work. Portamento is audible in the strings, and not elided; percussion remains balanced and supportive, with the cowbells prominent when necessary, but never overly so. Jansons captures the atmospheric character of the slow movement, with figuration from Mahler’s Rückert settings drawn out a bit, as if to call attention to the connections between the Lieder and this instrumental movement. Jansons bring the slow movement to a definite climax, and then allows the intensity to subside, audibly shaping the structure as he brings the movement to its conclusion. In giving such emphasis to the slow movement, Jansons brings out the classical form that Mahler used in this Symphony.

The Scherzo that follows – in the order that the composer performed the work and eventually published it – offers a contrastingly jarring mood. The character of the Scherzo offsets the weightier tone of the Andante that precedes it, and in this recording, the rich and full sounds of the slow movement are contrasted by the thinner, less sustained approach that Jansons uses in the Scherzo. The tempos allow the figuration to emerge clearly, and the articulations in the percussion and brass introduce an appropriately pointed character to the piece. As with the Andante, the percussion are clearly placed in Jansons’ sound structures, but never overly loud. As the movement develops, Jansons plays with with the tempos, allowing the thematic content to guide his fluid beat. The Scherzo may not be as driven as other conductors have taken it, and in doing so, Jansons draws out the character of the Scherzo in his interpretation of the movement.

In the Finale Jansons approaches the music with a pacing that gives the impression of being studied. Details become apparent in this interpretation, but the opening of the movement seems atmospheric without necessarily connecting the various theme groups together in the larger structure of the movement. As the movement proceeds, the tempo increases a bit, but the details of supporting lines, accompaniment figures, and various figurations sometimes fade from the balanced vision found in the opening measures. When contrasting sections occur the differences in tempo sometimes make them sound disconnected, rather than integrated in the Rondo-Finale structure that presumes a varied repetition that sets up the movement for its inevitable conclusion.

At some point, though, the question arises about the relationship between the movement order and the interpretation of the work. While the ultimate significance of the Sixth Symphony may not rest on the order of the Andante and Scherzo, the placement of those two movement is meaningful in the context of the perspective they offer each other in the overall structure of the work. Mahler was certainly sensitive to such considerations in other works, since he worked through various plans of movements for the Third Symphony, albeit in terms of finding a place for the song Das himmlische Leben, which he eventually jettisoned and used as the focal point of the Fourth Symphony. Yet even there, the relationship of movements preceding the Song-Finale was critical because of the thematic links that Mahler placed in the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony, and the erstwhile copyist’s error in placing the Scherzo before Das himmlische Leben would have detracted from the increasingly lengthy thematic links to the song. In this regard, the movement order in the Sixth operates at a different plane, but the character of the movements reflects larger structural concerns that Mahler wanted to express when he himself when he conducted the premiere. Such architectural concerns are especially important in live performances, where the dynamic situation in the concert places demands on the conductor to shape the work for the audience in lieu to bringing it to an effective presentation, including a convincing conclusion. With recordings, it can be otherwise, as when Barbirolli’s recording was adjusted for the release, and not as the conductor performed the work. A live performance of the work presumes a tension that is not effective when the movements are treated interchangeably, and this is critical not only for the present work but any music of Mahler or other composers who used similar structural techniques that affect the overall structure.

Yet with this recording, it is important to realize that it is distilled from several concerts. The title “RCO Live” suggests a concert recording, rather and one made in the studio, but when the Concertgebouw uses three performances to create the release suggests a sufficient amount of work in the studio to remove it from the realm of a live concert. Granted the quality of the recording relies on multiple performances, but the label “RCO Live” seems at odds with the efforts involved. That aside, it is difficult to dispute the quality of the recording, which is vibrant and demonstrates the caliber that this Orchestra continues to bring to its performances. Jansons should be commended for his interpretation of this complex score, and his record can stands alongside others. Like other works of commensurate gravity, this is a score that is best understand in the context of several recordings for the nuances various conductors bring to it, and Jansons’ new recording with the Concertgebouw, an ensemble that Mahler knew firsthand in his lifetime, is worthwhile choice to include with other fine performances of this complex work.

James L. Zychowicz

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