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Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 2 in C Minor.
25 Apr 2007

MAHLER: Symphony no. 2

Over a century after its premiere, Mahler's Second Symphony continues to be a compelling work and is as relevant now as it was when the work was conceived.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 2 in C Minor.

Birgit Remmert, alto, Lisa Milne, soprano, The Hungarian Radio Choir, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer, conductor.

Channel Classics CCS SA 23506 [2CDs]

$27.49  Click to buy

Even though Mahler withdrew the program for this and his other symphonies, the programmatic content of these works was well known, and generations of critics and scholars have used those descriptions to interpret the music. At another level, Mahler’s Second Symphony, with its choral Finale in a sense, is a response to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and where the Viennese composer had proclaimed the universality of humanity, Mahler declared the general salvation of mankind in an escatological resurrection that transcends religious doctrine. Musically, this is a work in which the composer combines the otherwise artificial divisions of instrumental and vocal music to create a work that is truly symphonic in the sense that the term was used in the late Renaissance, when large-scale works by Gabrieli used instruments and voices to present texts in a celebratory works.

A sense of celebration sometimes accompanies performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony, in much the same way as occurs with Beethoven’s Ninth. As much as Mahler’s work is heard more often in concerts in the twenty-first century than it was in the first half of the twentieth, the Resurrection Symphony remains a work that is by no means run-of-the-mill. Mahler’s score calls for tight, precise ensemble in both the orchestra and chorus, soloists who must work together seamlessly, and a perceptive conductor who can balance those elements in a composition that assimilates elements symphony, oratorio, and orchestral song. The conductor Ivan Fischer captures such a spirit in this recording that was released in 2006. While the notes accompanying this CD do not contain specific dates, the CD was recorded in September 2005.

With its SACD format, the sound is both effective and appropriate to the style and scope Mahler’s Second Symphony. . Moreover, Fischer’s approach to the score is engaging for the way it results in a musical narrative that conveys the structure of the score. This is apparent in the first movement, in which Fischer gives shape to the various ideas that Mahler develops in the course of the piece. The incisive approach to the opening is indicative of the crispness that Fischer uses to bring out nuances in the first movement, while also respecting the details of the score. He is effective allowing the tempos to suit the thematic content, so that the various phrases sound natural and convincing. Yet when the score dictates, he brings out the rhythmic figuration that contributes to the overall ethos of the movement, the Totenfeier Mahler used to set in motion the larger structure of the work.

In the first movement, for example, the he allows for the kind of flexibility that makes the phrases meaningful and, at the same time, refrains from anything idiosyncratic or excessive. the dynamic levels support the musical phrases, and while some timbres may be prominent for a moment, they are never distractingly overdrawn or exaggerated. The marchlike character of the first movement is never achieved at the expense of the lyrical themes that Mahler used in it, and this demonstrates the strategic thinking that is characteristic of this fine new recording. Without becoming slavishly literal with the details that are essential to this movement and the others in the Symphony, Fischer uses the markings as a point of departure for this interpretation, such that the flute solo in the first movement can become a kind of dialogue with the solo violin and it is possible to hear the subtle shifts of tone color that support the structure of the work. These kinds of nuances are evident in the performance, and the quality of the record brings out such gradations quite well.

The fine recording quality found in this particular is noticeable in the second movements, where the various string textures are critical to its success. critical for the second movement, where the string sound must be heard in all its detail. The sometimes close recording is hardly out of place here, as it can be sometimes hard to hear in a live concert. Even though the recording levels capture the details, the winds never sound out of balance, but fit nicely into the timbre that Fischer has created in this movement.

Such attention to detail is not unique to the first movement, but found throughout the Symphony. With the percussion passage that opens the third movement, for example, the crispness and precision of this recording conveys a sense of immediacy that sets the tone for the rest of the movement. Proceeding from that point, the various motifs emerge disstinctly, and when the melismatic phrases from the song “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” occur, the lines are clearly articulated. Fischer’s reading of this movement is emblematic of his approach to the entire work, and he achieves a convincing whole that benefits from the attention he has given to the details that are part of it.

The vocal movements are also well done, with Fischer’s reading of the song “Urlicht,” the fourth movement, achieving an appropriate contrast to the ironic and sometimes aggressive character of the movement that preceded it. Birgit Remmert is quite moving in this piece, and her intonation is quite effective. Her alto voice fits the work well, as does her phrasing. The accompaniment is properly supportive of her voice, and as the orchestral becomes more animated, it blends well into her more impassioned sounds, especially with the lines “Da kam ein Engelein, und wollt’ mich abweisen” (“Then a little angel came, and wanted to turn me away”). From there, the song reaches it climax, and ends convincingly, thus setting up the final movement.

In the Finale, Fischer has a fine control of the architecture of the work as well as the forces involved in executing it. The sound quality, as in the other movements, conveys the textures well. The pizzicato accompaniment to the “Auferstehung” theme in the first section of the Finale is, for example, clear and clean, and in this and other places the balance is fine. At the same time, Fischer’s expressive palette includes an effective use of tempos that support the thematic and timbral content. Thus, the forte and fortissimo passages that Mahler uses to underscore the structure are effectively controlled in expressing the swelling phrases that precede the march prior to the choral entrance. There, too, the drum rolls are broad without being uncharacteristically overplayed. The offstage brass fit nicely into the sound plan of Fischer’s reading of this score.

Likewise, the choral entrance is effective, and the softer, almost sotto voce, passages are richly balanced, with the full texture quite moving the when the music demands a louder dynamic. At the same time, Lisa Milne’s voice emerges well front the ensemble, with a soaring tone that serves well in this work. In the vocal duet, Remmert and Milne work well together, and the sense of urgency that Fischer introduces in the orchestra gives the section the dramatic tension it requires. Such tension carries forward in the remainder of the movement, which presents the tableau of resurrection in a moving reading. Fischer brings the work to its conclusion in a recording that deserves attention for its remarkable sonic and musical qualities. This is a vivid performance that is served well by the recording quality. As the work ends, one almost expects to hear the applause that accompanies a live performance.

James L. Zychowicz

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