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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1901) [61:00]
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-02) [76:08]
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-04) [89:09]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 28 April, 5 May, 19 April 2011 (Nos. 4, 5, 6 respectively)
German text and English translation (Symphony No 4) included.

Hot on the heels of the first volume of the 2011Maazel/Philharmonia Mahler cycle (review) we now have the second instalment. Again, these recordings all stem from concerts in London. My Seen and Heard colleague, Jim Pritchard, reviewed the performance of the Fourth Symphony. We don’t seem to have reviewed either of the other London events but I attended a run-out of the Fifth in Warwick (review) so the opportunity to experience Maazel’s reading of this symphony again was of special interest to me.

I had intended to make some comparisons with Maazel’s 1980s studio recording of the Fourth with the Vienna Philharmonic. However, seeing Sarah Fox’s name reminded me that just a few years ago I’d reviewed another live outing by the Philharmonia in which she took part. On that occasion Sir Charles Mackerras was on the podium. Though Maazel’s account has quite a lot going for it I much prefer Mackerras. This is a difficult symphony to bring off because a conductor has to convey a feeling of sophisticated innocence. There’s plenty of sophistication in Maazel’s approach – arguably rather too much – but too often it lacks innocence.

Though his reading of the first movement is generally good there are several occasions when Maazel indulges in point-making, usually slowing down the tempo – and losing momentum – to do so. Mackerras adopts a lighter touch and his pacing tends to be a bit more nimble. In the second movement Maazel and the Philharmonia impart a good tang to the music. Maazel is a seasoned Mahlerian and so his ear for the detail in Mahler’s writing serves him well. There’s an appropriately spiky contribution from the solo violinist (Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay?) and also some pungent playing from the horn and wind principals. However, I feel Mackerras has more of a spring to his step and, by comparison, Maazel’s interpretation lacks a bit of wit and natural flow.

Maazel’s slow movement is very good indeed and the Philharmonia offer refined playing. I find Maazel completely convincing and, after so much ravishing music, he ensures that the big climax (at 1917) is the aural equivalent of a blaze of light. Furthermore, the wind-down from that climax to the end of the movement is superbly controlled. Come the finale, however, and we find Maazel indulging in some more heavy-handed point-making. All is well until just before Sarah Fox begins the final stanza of the poem, ‘Kein Musik is ja nicht auf Erden’. The orchestral preface (from 5:28) is beguiling until Maazel slows right down just before the singer enters. From there on the pace is far too drawn out: it all sounds calculated though Miss Fox copes expertly with the elongated phrases. There’s no such artifice with Mackerras who maintains an orthodox and consistent tempo and thereby gets more natural results.

The Fifth that I attended in Warwick was given the day before what has been preserved here. I very deliberately didn’t look at my review of that concert until I’d listened to this recording and decided what I was going to say about it. I’m not surprised that the interpretations seem to have been almost identical – it would have been decidedly odd had that not been the case – but I see, with a little relief, that I felt broadly the same about the performance when I heard it on disc.

The first movement is big and weighty. Just 1:58 in we find Maazel slowing momentarily and losing some momentum to make what is, in the overall context, a fairly minor rhetorical point – happily there aren’t too many similar instances. Barbirolli, in his celebrated New Philharmonia studio recording, is similarly broad in this movement but he maintains momentum. The second movement is trenchant and strongly projected. Maazel’s reading is very powerful and once or twice he’s broader than many other conductors I’ve heard. However, the magnetism and purpose of the reading means that he ‘gets away with it’. When the chorale is reached (12:42) his approach to it is quite brisk and business-like, almost as if he intends this to be unfinished business – a tenable view – though he treats it more expansively when it’s repeated.

The big scherzo receives a moulded reading. Once again Maazel takes a rather weighty view – though not excessively so; there’s still plenty of well-channelled energy in the music-making. The unnamed principal horn player excels. The music is consistently characterised sharply and though one might quibble with some points of the interpretation it is most certainly not routine – and that’s an important point since these days this symphony is sometimes treated as something of a showpiece work. I was interested to read in Julian Joseph’s very good booklet note his description of this movement as a ‘life-affirming collective dance’. We all hear music differently, of course, and I strongly suspect that these notes were the programme notes written for and in advance of the concerts; in other words, they are not notes specially commissioned for the recording. However, despite the fact that this movement’s main key is bright D major the impression that this performance of the scherzo left with me was quite a dark one. That’s not meant as a criticism, however, merely an observation.

Maazel takes the famous Adagietto quite expansively – his performance plays for 11:16. Julian Joseph comments on the debate as to whether this movement is a lament or a love song. Perhaps, as I hear it, Maazel’s reading is slightly inclined towards the former. However, what is certain is that it’s a deeply felt performance, expressively played, and I found it very convincing. I was interested to see that I felt that in the Warwick performance the finale was held on slightly too tight a rein; this time round I’ve scribbled in my notes “highly disciplined but full of spirit – though [one has] heard it more unbuttoned.” This is not an extrovert, showy performance – and that’s good, I think – but perhaps some evidence of a more smiling countenance would have been welcome. When the apotheosis of the chorale is reached (14:39) it seems a triumph that has not been easily won and, if I read the performance right, then I think Maazel has taken an entirely tenable approach to the symphony.

I see that in my review of the Warwick concert I made a comment to the effect that there were a few features of Maazel’s interpretation that I wouldn’t wish to hear repeatedly in a recording: little did I know I would have a CD to review in due course! I think there are a few interpretative touches that cause the eyebrows to rise but overall the sheer conviction and power of what we hear carries the day. This intense interpretation isn’t the only way to play Mahler’s Fifth but it’s jolly impressive and Maazel, who has clearly thought through every detail of the score, is never routine or dull in his approach. It’s good to have this preserved.

The Sixth Symphony is split across two discs with the first movement (25:58) occupying the first disc. Maazel opts to play the Scherzo second. That’s a decision of which I approve in principle and, as we shall see, in practice Maazel’s way with the score justifies that approach in spades. In October, 2010, a few months before giving this London Sixth Maazel conducted the symphony in Amsterdam with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The film of that performance was included in a Blu-Ray collection of all the Mahler symphonies that the orchestra issued and it was one of the highlights of the set, according to my colleague, Dan Morgan (review). Having heard this London performance, I can understand Dan’s enthusiasm.

Pacing the first movement can be difficult: some conductors take it too briskly while others are too slow. I think Maazel gets it just right, making this a grim and gripping march. He plays the exposition repeat – not everyone does, but they should. The so-called ‘Alma’ theme doesn’t soar as ecstatically as in some performances that I’ve heard but this is of a piece with Maazel’s conception of the movement, I suspect: I hear regret in this passage. Further on, when we reach the cowbells episode Maazel doesn’t make the music as lightly nostalgic as some; instead there’s an air of sadness or at least of melancholy. Yet again we find instances where Maazel pulls back the tempo in order to make an expressive point but overall I find his interpretation very convincing. This is a strong and weighty performance which makes us realise why at one time Mahler labelled the work ‘Tragic’. Julian Joseph refers to ‘an affirmative ending’ and I agree that’s how the close of the movement is often presented; however, on this occasion the mood seems almost to be one of savage exaltation.

Maazel now shows why the scherzo should come second, maintaining and developing the mood of the first movement. He leads a strongly characterised reading that is pointed and often sardonic. He catches too the element of bitterness in the music, Mahler’s often harsh, garish scoring is very well realised in this performance, to which Maazel and the orchestra also bring the necessary rhythmic tautness. In a trenchant performance such as this the listener then needs the relative balm of the slow movement before the emotional onslaught of the finale. Maazel’s is an expressive and nicely moulded account of the movement and the Philharmonia offers distinguished playing. The climax is intense and passionate and then the gentle ending is perfectly voiced.

The vast finale grips the listener from the outset; the opening pages are pregnant with tension. With superbly focused, incisive and powerful playing from the orchestra and a firm sense of direction and purpose from the podium this is an account of the finale that takes the listener to the edge. The recording allows us to hear a great deal of the teeming detail in the music but above all one is struck by the drama of the music. The first hammer blow (13:44) is the catalyst for a release of burning energy but the second (18:42) really pitches us towards the abyss. From 23:30 onwards the performance is particularly searing and then the doom-laden ending (from 30:30) is full of black despair, heralding the moment of annihilation at the end. This is shattering movement and here it’s done very well indeed. Thankfully, there’s no intrusive applause at the end; in fact, there’s no applause after any of these.

As I’ve indicated, there are elements in all three that are a bit heavy-handed on the conductor’s part – an issue that affects the Sixth least. However, the overall conviction and the sense that Maazel is probing these scores and not offering anything routine means that one can live with these moments in the context of the bigger picture. Oddly, I find there is a similarity between this box and its predecessor. In the first box I liked least the performance that came first (the First) and so it is here with the Fourth while it was the last symphony in the earlier box (the Third) that impressed me the most and here I’m most taken with Maazel’s reading of the Sixth.

Throughout all three symphonies the playing of the Philharmonia is razor sharp and idiomatic: they’re consistently on top form for Maazel. The recorded sound is very good as are Julian Johnson’s notes. This is shaping up as a most interesting, if variable, Mahler cycle and I look forward to the next volume very much.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Symphony 4 ~~ Symphony 5 ~~ Symphony 6