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Symphony No.6 in A minor

Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester SaarbrückenConducted by Hans Zender
CPO 999 477-2 [69.59]
Amazon USA

Hans Zender was born in 1936 and held posts in Freiburg, Bonn and Kiel before serving thirteen years as Chief Conductor of the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra. He is noted for pioneering performances of Twentieth Century music as well as mainstream repertoire and as he composes also he might be said to be a musician in the Boulez tradition though less well known internationally. I greatly admired his recording of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. His and Mahler's radicalism in that work suited each other well. In his recording of the Ninth, however, Mahler's fatal nostalgia seemed to be "screened out" by Zender's radicalism so a great deal was lost. The Sixth, though Mahler's most uncompromising work, can also benefit from a more astringent, classical approach and that is largely borne out here. But I wouldn't put Zender's recording of the Sixth in quite the same class as his Seventh. For one thing the orchestra don't play as well and there is a slight glare on the recording which becomes tiring on the ear and has the effect of exposing some occasional coarse playing from the brass which, as the "live" performance progresses, irritates. I also think there are some crucial points where Zender goes just too far in his zeal to distance himself from too much emotion. It's a near miss but a miss all the same.

The first movement contains no Exposition repeat and that seems to reinforce the breezy, "open-air" quality to Zender's performance. The march that begins and then dominates the movement is admirably sharp and propulsive too with sharp edges that will be the fingerprint of this performance, though there is no lack of weight either. I also liked the way Zender maintains his sense of pressing forward right through the Exposition so that he doesn't fragment the episodes, notably the great "Alma Theme" second subject, as some can. The lady herself comes into our lives with real gusto just as Mahler demands, the strings especially well lit and very bright. Zender will never linger in this symphony, will always be aware of the wider structure, the work's classical "framing" and I've always believed this aspect illuminates far more what was in Mahler's mind than any attempt at turning the work into "four tone poems in search of a symphony". In the central section of the Development where we are transported to mountain heights and hear the sound of cowbells there is no greater confirmation that what Zender is aiming for in the work is a creative objectivity by the way he places this amazing effect. Not for him any theatrical illusion of herds grazing on foothills beneath us and far away. These bells are well forward in the picture, chilling and sinister and, I have to say, a refreshing effect that adds to the tension Zender manages to bring to this movement to the end.

Zender manages the trenchancy of the opening of the Scherzo well but doesn't interrupt his fluency of approach either. The Trio sections, (if Alma Mahler is to be believed a portrait of her children playing on the beach), seems to gain bitterness under Zender, the woodwinds especially poisonous. The sound recording helps in being a little top heavy so some loss should be noted in lower frequencies. This is followed by a performance of the Andante that I find one of the most impressive I have ever heard. I believe that in this movement Mahler is always a few steps short of kitsch and so quite a firm hand is needed to keep the music moving at something near the tempo mark asked for. In fact there is a bonus here. The way Zender begins the movement puts me in mind of the "Alma theme" back in the first movement, almost a subdued version of the Schwungvoll mood Mahler asks for there which I have never noticed here before. So I find Zender's daring to press on impressive in that what emerges is an orchestral lied with breath-length phrasing. Apparently so simple and yet so seldom played like this, the music emerges naturally and nobly but also maintains an uneasy mood. This is a "comfort zone" amidst the maelstrom, but a cold comfort for all that.

At the start of the last movement the recorded balance allows the violins' up-rush at the start (and in subsequent appearances) to instil in our minds and chill our souls in the way Karajan's recording does here too. However, I do feel this is the movement where the performance starts to show shortcomings mainly in that I sense the orchestra flagging. In "live" performances orchestras are put to the test by this point some tiring is always likely. What I do admire about Zender's view is that he recognises even more the need to "frame" the tragedy being enacted, notably in the way the hammer blows attempt to impede the progress of our hero by pitting them against passages of optimistic release. Mahler's true tragic vision works best when we are presented with what the hero will lose before he actually loses it. So note the passage between the first and second hammer blows, bars 397-457, as an example for the almost jaunty, energetic, robust progress Zender injects into the music here. (You can compare him with Klaus Tennstedt at the same point. He seems to have already loaded the backpack of his hero with boulders.) When the second hammer blow arrives the sense of tragic interruption is that much greater under Zender. However, it must be said that the hammers themselves are nothing and the whip Mahler employs in the score seems to be missing in this recording too. As I have said I think by now the orchestra just doesn't quite have the "heft" left to deliver the power that is needed, especially towards the end where the brass blare rather. Compare them with the New York Philharmonic "live" for Mitropoulos and you can tell the difference between a good orchestra and a great one in this work. If I have a real criticism to make of Zender in this movement it is that a slightly more deliberate overall tempo would have made the movement breathe just a little more.

This will not be to everyone's taste but is a recording of Mahler's Sixth conducted by an interesting musician with many good points on its side. Not least classical rigour stressing twentieth century aspects. There must be some reservations regarding the playing and the sound but this single disc version certainly deserves to be heard.


Tony Duggan



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