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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1904-06) [81:04]
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. 14-16 May 2007, Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland
RCA RED SEAL (BMG-SONY) 88697 36465 2 [23:15 + 57:49]
Experience Classicsonline

‘We both wept’, wrote Alma Mahler after hearing her husband play the Sixth Symphony on the piano. It’s hardly surprising, for though Mahler is a byword for angst in music, this symphony is the composer’s darkest and most desolate work. Indeed, Mahler even appended the title ‘Tragic’ for the first performance in Essen in 1906 but subsequently removed it. In any event this scarifying score needs no programme; it speaks so eloquently for itself.
The Sixth has been well served on disc but the number of outstanding recordings is relatively small, not least because of the unique difficulties and challenges this it presents. Leonard Bernstein and the Wiener Philharmoniker (DG 427 697) are as emotionally intense as ever, conductor and orchestra in splendid form. For those who like their Mahler loftier and more detached Claudio Abbado’s two recordings – the first with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (DG 423 928, nla) the second with Berliner Philharmoniker (DG 449 102) – are good alternatives. Both are very fine; if anything I find the Chicago performance the more satisfying of the two. That said, Abbado is a Mahlerian of such stature that all his performances demand to be heard. That includes a recent DVD of the Sixth with ‘his’ Lucerne orchestra (see Anne Ozorio’s review).
The Wiener Philharmoniker’s 1995 performance under Pierre Boulez (DG 445 835) is probably the most astonishing Mahler Sixth I’ve ever encountered – a shamefaced admission from someone who doesn’t usually warm to Boulez in this repertoire. It’s certainly a disc I come back to often, which is more than I can say for Christoph Eschenbach’s curiously tepid version with the Philadelphians (Ondine 1084). The latter has attracted a lot of admiration elsewhere but it had me ‘wool-gathering’ within minutes of pressing ‘Play’.
There are many other recordings of the Sixth out there but, as I said earlier, not many that do justice to this most uncompromising of symphonies. Having praised David Zinman’s ongoing Tonhalle cycle – he is working through the symphonies in sequence – I was eager to hear what he makes of the Sixth. In some ways I was a little anxious, as the Wunderhorn lightness he brings to the earlier works was never going to be enough here. Certainly the opening Allegro isn’t as heftig as others – Boulez in particular – or the orchestral playing as full-bodied, but there are the usual gains in terms of transparency and instrumental detail. That said, Zinman doesn’t screw up the tension as much as some – that ghastly march tune sounds positively terrifying under Boulez – and the emotional temperature is somewhat lower than most.
The next issue is the order of movements. Zinman opts for Andante then Scherzo, whereas Boulez and Abbado stick to Mahler’s final thoughts – Scherzo followed by Andante. You can programme the movements in whichever order you prefer, although I have a sneaking suspicion the conductor’s choice inevitably affects the way they perceive and shape the symphony as a whole. Whatever the case Zinman brings a wonderful buoyancy to the opening of the Andante. Now this is one place where the pastoral/Wunderhorn mood is entirely apt. As usual, the Sony-BMG team capture plenty of nuance and detail, the movement’s final pages being beautifully poised.
Abbado and the Chicago band are much more sensuous here but not as detailed. That said they find a rapt, innig quality that is quite magical at times. By comparison Zinman is clearer-eyed but no less appealing, while the Viennese are at their most sumptuous for Boulez. This really is glorious music making from a conductor that many – me included – once regarded as too chilly and forensic for this late-Romantic repertoire.
What this Abbado-Boulez-Zinman comparison does illustrate, though, is just how pliable this lovely music is, and how forgiving of whoever waves the stick. Not so the parodic Scherzo, which is far less accommodating. Although the Zurich band responds to Zinman’s demands with commendable enthusiasm they simply can’t match Boulez and the WP when it comes to that grotesque march. Indeed, the Viennese play with remarkable precision and weight at this point. Their cymbals and timps are particularly arresting, the echt-Mahlerian rhythms nicely pointed. That half-lit, pared-down conclusion has seldom sounded so other-worldly.
The same goes for the opening of the Finale. Boulez catches the mood of desolation early on, whereas Zinman seems to linger lovingly over the notes. In doing so he surely misses the seismic shudder and heave of this music. Boulez is incomparable here, pitching the listener into the crevasse, underpinned by magnificently concentrated playing from the WP. And while the Tonhalle’s hammer-blows are powerful enough it’s clear the performance has lost its focus. The result is a string of seemingly rhetorical gestures - surely not what this unflinching music is all about.
Abbado finds a middle way – the DG recording is warm and full, the Chicagoans sounding as burnished as ever – yet even he manages to distil more from the nachtmusik-like episodes that permeate the early part of the Finale. But it’s Boulez and the WP who really tap into the music’s inner torment, leaving one in no doubt that death really does triumph here.
So Zinman starts well enough but it all goes awry later on.  He pushes the Tonhalle to the limit, which only highlights the orchestra’s lack of heft in this weightiest of works. Make no mistake, though, Zinman’s traversal of the earlier symphonies remains highly desirable. I trust he and his band will return to form as the cycle progresses. A minor irritation; the symphony is split awkwardly over two discs, with just the first movement on Disc 1. And there’s no filler either – unlike Eschenbach, Bernstein and Abbado I. Also, Boulez and Abbado II fit the work on one disc.
Dan Morgan


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