Mahler: Symphony No. 6/Gergiev SACD

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

This release bodes well for the Mahler cycle announced by the LSO under Valery Gergiev. The performance it most resembles is Solti’s Chicago recording on Decca. Tempos are swift and consistently exciting, and while Gergiev isn’t afraid to inflect a phrase, he never does so at the expense of forward momentum (the quiet interludes in the finale offer a case in point). Also like Solti, there are a few moments where tension slackens momentarily owing to a touch of rhythmic casualness, in this case (I assume) at least partially due the circumstances of live recording. This happens in the lead-up to the first movement’s recapitulation (despite the added bass drum crescendo, which actually works very well) and in the second iteration of the scherzo. At measure 674 in the recapitulation of the finale, timpani and horns fail to catch the dotted figure as notated, but none of these issues is terribly serious in the context of the whole performance.

Of more concern to some listeners will be Gergiev’s decision to place the Andante second. I played this performance both ways, back-to-back, and while I acknowledge the legitimacy of the order as presented here because Mahler never definitively made up his mind, the more I listen the more certain I become that the slow movement really needs to come third. This is not just because of the nature of the thematic connections between the movements, or their tonal relationships, but because the music of the scherzo, particularly its coda, and the opening of the finale are simply insufficiently contrasting in mood.

The only substantive argument in favor of placing the scherzo third is that in keeping with Mahler’s neo-classical preoccupations in this symphony (such as the first movement’s exposition repeat, which Gergiev observes), the minuet or scherzo usually would come after the slow movement. But the history of this symphony shows Mahler discarding external or programmatic conventions (the third hammer blow being the most obvious) in favor of what the music itself wants to do. Thus, a clear majority of sympathetic Mahler conductors, knowing full well Mahler’s own indecision in this regard, have chosen to place the scherzo second, and it is surely false historicism that seeks to make the case for the opposite view merely on the basis of what Mahler himself did the last time he conducted a problematic work that was still very much in the “tinkering” stage when he died.

The main argument in favor of placing the scherzo second, it seems to me, is that the first movement ends in the major, and so does the Andante. Following each of these endings immediately with the minor-key start of the ensuing movement reinforces the symphony’s principal “fate” motive: the major chord turning minor, and it does so in a way that harmonizes the work’s overall emotional trajectory (hope and happiness ultimately negated) with its large-scale architecture. Mahler builds this procedure tellingly into each movement at both the motivic and broader thematic levels, so it makes particular sense that he would take advantage of the opportunity to establish the same polarity between movements as well. Hearing this performance twice-through, once each way, makes this very clear, and whatever the other arguments pro or con this point strikes me as dispositive. I certainly take nothing away from those who feel differently, and as I said, you can play the movements in any order you like, at least on disc, but I digress at such length here because Gergiev’s own interpretation, its very energy and directness, acquires a sharper expressive focus and a more vivid scheme of contrasts with the scherzo placed second.

The LSO acquits itself admirably, particularly given the concert provenence of the performance. This is not unexpected: James Levine’s similarly taut RCA recording with this same orchestra remains one of the great “sleeper” performances of this symphony, a version seldom mentioned but one that never fails to impress on rehearing. Mahler’s brass and percussion-heavy scoring plays to this group’s strengths, but Gergiev ensures that balances remain true and the strings receive their due (and offer a particularly songful Andante). The massed horns sound magnificent in the finale’s battle-cries, and all of the section principals (horn, trumpet, oboe, violin) tackle their parts with aplomb. Special effects, such as cowbells, offstage chimes, harp played with a plectrum, low celesta, and of course the hammer blows, are well-judged and atmospheric. The sonics have plenty of presence in all formats while remaining a touch dry overall, as usual from this source. But with excellent bass response we get maximum textural clarity at Gergiev’s often swift tempos, with no loss of impact. It’s good to hear this symphony played with the sort of gruff, raw vigor that suits its heroic cast so well.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Bernstein (DG or Sony), Chailly (Decca), Levi (Telarc)

GUSTAV MAHLER - Symphony No. 6

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