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Symphony No.2 in C minor "The Resurrection"

Stele op 33 for large orchestra

Kol Nidre op 39* for speaker, choir and orchestra
James Johnson (Speaker)*  Juliane Banse (Soprano)
Cornelia Kallisch (Alto) EuropaChorAkademie
SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiberg
Conducted by Michael Gielen
Hänssler Classic CD 93.001 [107.28]
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Michael Gielen's recordings of Mahler are notable for their clarity of execution and eschewing of romantic baggage. In this he's an interpreter who sees Mahler very much as a precursor of radical pioneers of twentieth century music who so admired him rather than inheritor of the nineteenth century symphonic tradition which these men ultimately rebelled against. A valid and valuable view which, in the case of compositions  like the Seventh and Ninth symphonies where Mahler's forward-looking aspect is more clearly apparent, presents us with results that provide a necessary strand of interpretation if we are to come to terms with these particular works. However we are on more controversial ground when this approach is applied to earlier works like the Second Symphony. Here the long shadow of late Nineteenth century Romanticism, both in the writing and philosophical well-spring, surely demands greater personal involvement on the part of the conductor, a more expressive style and even a dash of the virtuoso showman. The religious text affirming faith in the Christian resurrection that forms the centrepiece of the work especially calls for a theatrical style of some kind otherwise the alienation of the listener from Mahler's central message cannot be ruled out. This is more often than not the approach adopted by conductors from Bruno Walter to Simon Rattle in varying degrees. Only Otto Klemperer delivers something radically different and, in the end, I believe is even more rewarding. But any lack of orthodox expressive style in Klemperer's interpretation (best heard on either of his EMI versions) is made up for by a keen sense of drama and an almost truculent insistence on wearing the "hair shirt" of the man who asks questions of a work others are prepared to take at face value. Klemperer was a deeply religious man for all his apparent scepticism. The fact he asked questions of what is a fundamentally religious statement only seems to add depth and power to his view of it because you somehow know that his doubts hurt him deeply.

Michael Gielen plays the sceptic too but doesn't interrogate the music in the way Klemperer does and so there's a loss in drama, involvement and that rare aspect of music making to really pin down, empathy, to be encountered and dealt with by anyone coming to this recording. Gielen is rather like an investigator who has been asked to deliver a detailed report on a tragedy after it has taken place, rather than be the conduit through which we see the chain of events enacted before us. In fact a little like the Chorus in Greek Tragedy who comes onstage to describe the slaughter that has taken place behind the scenes for us to then use our own imaginations to fill out. So there is a crucial element of alienation at work in this recording of Mahler's Second, a feeling of taking a step or two back from the fray. Whether, as with the Chorus in Greek Tragedy, this becomes a creative aspect that throws light on the fundamentals of this symphony can only be decided on by the listener.

In the first movement listen to the ascending strings at the start of the first development (bars 117-128). Others invest this passage with aching nostalgia whereas Gielen wants to stress cool detachment. Then in the second movement, at bars 39-85, marked "Don't hurry", hear how Gielen stresses head over heart once again in the cello's counter-melody which is precise and unbending in opposition to most people's view including, so we gather from contemporary accounts, Mahler's own. In the last movement I don't think I have ever heard the early choral passages taken quite so flowing, or so forwardly projected, as they are here: almost as if Gielen is ashamed of any sense of poetry and mysticism Mahler may have intended. It's certainly different from what we are used to, though I found it most arresting, which surprised me. In the closing pages there's a sharpness of focus also, as is the case right through. At every turn Gielen is low on spirituality, high on clarity.

I would rather possess this reading of the Mahler Second than not, but it's one I don't think I will listen to all that often. The playing is distinguished and suits the "hands-off" approach of its conductor and the recording has a good sense of concert hall.

As if to drive home Gielen's modern agenda, he couples works by Arnold Schönberg and György Kurtag, providing a twentieth century frame to the Mahler and the way Gielen approaches it. I suspect this was a carefully planned move and for that let us admire the forethought and enterprise of those involved. Schönberg's "Kol Nidre" receives a stunning performance which English speakers will especially value for the fact that the Narration is delivered in a stark and clear English translation by the effective James Johnson, and Kurtag must have been pleased with a performance of such apparent fluency of his twelve-minute, luminously scored "Stele" for large orchestra.

For consistency of vision and for delivering his very modernist and individual view of Maher's Second Gielen has to be congratulated, even though this may not be most people's idea of how this work should be played. Ultimately it's just too cool and detached to endear itself. But if you are looking for an alternative to the more conventional conductor-involved ones, Gielen is your man.


Tony Duggan 




Tony Duggan 



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