Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-1896, rev. 1906)
Kelley O’Connor (mezzo)
Women of the Dallas Symphony Chorus
Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
rec. live, 21-23 May 2015, Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas, USA
Reviewed as a 16-bIt download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included

The Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, recently appointed Alan Gilbert’s successor at the New York Philharmonic, has already recorded two Mahler symphonies; the Fifth, with the LPO, and the Sixth, with the Dallas Symphony. He certainly has the right credentials for this repertoire; he was the youngest concertmaster ever appointed to the Concertgebouw, one of the world’s great Mahler bands. I’ve only heard one of his other recordings, that of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Apollon Musagète; fresh, lucid and very compelling it was a Recording of the Month (review).

Recently I’ve been reappraising James Levine’s incomplete Sony-RCA Mahler cycle, recorded with various orchestras in the 1970s and early 1980s, and I was struck anew by his glorious account of the Third. I’d quite forgotten how penetrating the conductor is there, and how strongly the work’s bucolic/parodic elements come through. Even more impressive is Levine’s ear for detail and his feel for tempo relationships and symphonic structure, qualities that also make Klaus Tennstedt’s live LPO account on ICA Classics and Lorin Maazel’s Philharmonia one on Signum so memorable.

There are many other fine accounts of Mahler's Third, high among them various audio and video versions from Claudio Abbado and Leonard Bernstein, so van Zweden’s will have to be very special if it’s to compete with, let alone surpass, those iconic performances. It’s clear from the first few minutes that the Dallas band are on their best behaviour; it’s just as obvious that this is going to be a superficial reading of this most radiant and eventful work. I have no issues with directness when it comes to Mahler – indeed, I’ve come to prefer it – but I baulk when, as here, it’s at the expense of shape, insight and character.

Frankly, this is the most cursory and colourless opener I’ve heard in ages; the clean but featureless recording certainly doesn’t help. Most dispiriting, though, is van Zweden’s rumty-tumty approach to a score whose topography is so varied and interesting. That air of diffidence also permeates the Tempo Menuetto, which is like an interminable trek across a barren plain. Charm? Forget it. Idiom? You wish. Just to make sure I wasn’t having a fugue of some kind I popped Levine’s Third into the player and, lo, I was thrust into a vibrant, thrumming universe, full of nuance, wit and warm, telling incident.

Goodness, can it get any worse? In a word, yes. The Scherzo is just as soulless, and that applies to the playing as much as it does to van Zweden’s direction; rhythms are flaccid and what should be a colourful and engaging narrative is uncertain and insipid. What I miss most is the heart, the affection that others bring to this music. And those heart-stopping epiphanies? Dream on. As for the off-stage posthorn it sounds like it’s in the next town. Once again I was reminded of just how flat the recording is, with little depth, breadth or sense of presence. I might as well have been listening to a low-bit-rate mp3 rather than a CD-quality download.

Given what’s happened thus far I dreaded Kelley O’Connor’s account of that sublime solo. I’m not sure which is worse, van Zweden’s halting accompaniment or the mezzo’s very approximate delivery. Taken together they certainly make for a grim interlude. Utterly disenchanted I could hardly bring myself to continue, for not even a miracle could save this performance now. The finale isn’t the finely spun, slow-building apotheosis it should be; in fact it’s dull, desiccated and just plain awful.

I’d say van Zweden’s Mahler 3 is on a par with Daniel Raiskin’s (C-Avi) and Vladimir Ashkenazy’s (Decca) in terms of sheer ghastliness. It’s recordings like these that make me wish orchestras would think twice before programming or recording Mahler symphonies, even if they do put bums on seats. Ironically it was Maazel – very uneven himself – who made that point at the height of the double centenary in 2010/11. As for the DSOLive recording it’s woeful, and no match for the best ‘own labels’ out there. That said, it’s van Zweden who must shoulder the blame for this travesty; he'll have to do a lot better in New York.

Shallow performance and sound; an unmitigated disaster.

Dan Morgan


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