As much as it can be easier to apprehend a live performance in a DVD of a concert, the sonics of this Ondine recording convey a sense of immediacy in this reading of Mahler’s complex and demanding score. The recording has a fine depth of sound that allows the nuances of Mahler’s scoring to emerge clearly and with the attention to detail that Eschenbach brings to the performance.
When it comes to the interpretation of the work, Eschenbach can be at times overtly demonstrative. Near the opening of the first movement Mahler moves from the first theme to the second, more lyrical one, the transition to the second theme seems to be paced a bit cautiously, and this almost anticipates the slower tempo in advance. It is as if the score were intended for the stage, where the dramatic elements must at times be prominent. Such a perspective is hardly foreign to Mahler’s music, which can be effectively dramatic, and suffers when performed in a routine or overly affected manner. That stated, it is not entirely unwelcome to hear the kind differentiation that Eschenbach offers later in the movement, since such an approach is useful when it comes to distinguishing the elements in this score that some criticize for being less individualized than the content of the works surrounding it, that is, the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. Perhaps it is a misnomer to treat these three works as a unit, when the are distinct compositions that deserve to be treated on their own terms. For these and other reasons Eschenbach’s interpretation also stands apart from those of other conductors. Yet it remains useful to refer to some of the fine earlier recordings of the Sixth Symphony, like the one conducted by George Szell, whose focus on the formal aspects of the score creates a different effect than Eschenbach’s.
With the second movement, in this performance, the Scherzo, Eschenbach starts with almost the same tempo as the first movement. As a result, the details are clear from the start, and a sense of delicacy characterizes the music. This stands apart from performances of the Scherzo that are more driven and result in a harsher style of playing. The appoggiatura works well with Eschenbach, because he does not overemphasize it, and the timpani strokes that color the theme later in the movement do not predominate when they occur. This movement shows an exemplary reading on the part of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which benefits from a strong sense of ensemble to make the score seem to emerge natural from the group.
Eschenbach chose to follow the Scherzo with the Andante, and such a position is contrary to recent thought on the movement order of this work. Mahler originally intended the inner movements of the Sixth Symphony to occur in the order Eschenbach used, but Mahler reversed them in the revised edition of the work and in all the performances he conducted. It would seem that his final thoughts on the order would be those, but the critical edition that was published in the early 1960s and treated as authoritative for a generation of musicians had the inner movements in the original order. The decision that the editor, Erwin Ratz made in presenting the work in this fashion has become controversial, and it raises questions about the disposition of Mahler’s music a century after his death. With the intention of the Mahler Gesamtausgabe to present Mahler’s work in editions based on the principle of the Ausgabe letzter Hand or, in some cases, Ausgabe letzter Fassung, it is important to vett the sources used so that the sources have musical credence. In the case of the critical edition, the materials used stand out for the inclusion of a telegram from the composer’s widow years later among otherwise conventional musical sources. Nevertheless, a new edition of this work in its ultimate form has been announced, and it will supersede Ratz’s score, and with that publication, it may reduce the various options conductors have recently taken upon themselves to use in performing Mahler’s score.
With Eschenbach’s decision to place the slow movement before the Finale, the result offers a noticeable contrast between the Scherzo and the Finale, and it certainly accentuates the dramatic aspects of this recording. Yet with the Finale found on the second of two CDs, the transition is not as immediate as if it occurred as the next track or on a single CD. In terms of the interpretation, though, the clarity of Eschenbach’s approach to the entire work is found in the slow movement, with the extended melodic lines that move from one instrument to another quite apparent. If the latter part of the slow movement is somewhat hesitant, such lingering on various sonorities is not without interest for the fine sonorities the Philadelphia Orchestra delivers. By the end of the movement, the sense of timelessness pervades the performance, without some of the tautness that occurs with other readings of the score.
The Finale brings the listener back to the milieu of the first movement, and Eschenbach delivers a straightforward interpretation of the movement. On this recording the sonics reinforce the various orchestral effects that Mahler used to support the musical structure. The telling point for some can be the coda, which benefits from understatement, so that the sonorities act hand-in-glove with the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas, all fine-tuned by the articulations – the resulting effect is unique in orchestral literature.
With a single movement placed on the second CD, it is useful to find an additional work included with this recording. In this case, the selection of Mahler’s youthful Piano Quartet is excellent, since it shares the same tonality as the Sixth Symphony. While other recordings of this fragmentary chamber work exist, the polish and élan that is part of this performance is laudable, and those unfamiliar with the Piano Quartet benefit from this fine reading of this early work by the youthful Mahler.
James L. Zychowicz