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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 (1903/04) [82.15]
rec. Live, 19/20 June 2018 Philharmonie, Berlin
Symphony No. 6 (1903/04) [79.31]
rec. Live, 14/15 November 1987 Philharmonie, Berlin
Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle
1 Blu-ray disc with video of 2018 farewell concert + High Resolution Audio of both concerts + Documentary of Rattle and interview + Download code for high-resolution audio file of both concert recordings
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER BPHR180231 [2 CDs: 161.46 & Blu-ray]

To mark Sir Simon Rattle’s tenure as chief conductor of Berliner Philharmoniker this hardcover edition contains recordings of two separate live performances of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. This high-end set also contains several other features. The performance of Rattle’s 2018 farewell concert has been recorded on CD 1 and videoed in High Definition (contained on the Blu-ray disc). On CD 2 is Rattle’s 1987 debut concert with the orchestra (originally recorded by Sender Freies Berlin) and taken from the archive of Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (rbb) and is an analogue tape that has been digitally remastered. As it took place over thirty years ago, in the years before Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall was founded, there is no video of this 1987 performance on the Blu-ray. The Blu-ray disc also contains both recordings of the Sixth Symphony in high resolution audio (Pure Audio) of lossless studio master quality. In addition, the set includes a personal code for downloading the high-resolution audio file of both concert recordings.

The inspiration of great artists is often at its greatest in times of hardship and suffering. Mahler seemed to recognize the inevitability of tragic events in his life, although at the time of writing his Sixth in 1903/04 everything seemed rosy. His family life with wife Alma and his daughters was contented, he held the prestigious post of music director at the Wiener Hofoper (Vienna Court Opera) and his music was receiving increased attention. Yet it seems as if Mahler was experiencing an inner sense of dark foreboding while creating his Sixth, a shadowy and antagonistic score. Mahler himself gave the premiere of the Sixth in May 1906 at Essen. The great German conductor Bruno Walter, a younger associate of Mahler, described the Sixth as “bleakly pessimistic; it reeks of the bitter cup of human life”. As if foreshadowing his life events like a premonition, within a year of completing the work Mahler lost his daughter Maria to scarlet fever, he himself was diagnosed with heart disease and the much younger Alma was to begin an affair with Walter Gropius. There were professional problems in Vienna too as Mahler, highly unpopular within the company, was forced to resign from his post as Hofopern-Direktor. Incidentally, the Berlin premiere of the Sixth was given by Berliner Philharmonie at (Alte) Philharmonie in October 1908 under the baton of Oskar Fried.

At the Musikfest Berlin 2015 at Philharmonie I witnessed Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of burning passion; probably the finest account of Mahler’s Sixth I’ve heard. When Rattle made his concert debut in 1987 with the Berliner Philharmoniker he conducted Mahler’s Sixth and although he had rehearsed the orchestra he clearly wouldn’t have been able to stamp his mark on the orchestra. Not surprisingly, from this world class orchestra there is some beautiful playing, yet this is a rather uneven and far from cohesive performance of the Sixth. I would describe it as a serviceable performance, what is absent is the required feeling of total engagement as is any consistent degree of emotional tension. The performance charts an important part of Rattle’s early development but I doubt whether it’s a recording I will reach for again. With regard to the speeds of both performances there is little significance in the overall difference.

Rattle’s 2018 account of the Sixth, his final appearance on the podium after sixteen years as the Berliner Philharmoniker chief conductor, is a very different proposition. It’s a performance of a similar captivating quality to the above 2015 concert from Nelsons and the Boston Symphony in the very same hall. Rattle and his players unify so unerringly the elements of musicality, vitality, precision and expression with a sense of total engagement. It’s a performance charged with significant intensity that runs the gamut of emotions from swelling passion to deep expectancy to vehement drama. Setting the tone for the performance, the opening movement is remarkable for its resoluteness, energy and clarity and yet is focused. The contrast of mood varies markedly between a sense of love and joy (notably the so-called ‘Alma’ theme) to a driving martial character. Imbued with poignancy in the Andante, Rattle achieves a remarkably inspiring outcome. Rarely in this movement have I experienced such a stunning effect as the heart wrenching melodies played on a gloriously warm bed of strings. Indeed, at times it almost feels as though time is standing still. This is a decidedly confident reading of the Scherzo from Rattle and his players. Although relishing the biting drama and sheer excitement, as a respite I welcomed the temperature cooling between the climaxes. In the Finale Rattle’s players deliver a punchy, high voltage level of intensity with an edge-of-the-seat excitement. It would be remiss not to mention the beauty of the characterful wind playing, yet all the other sections also deserve great credit for what is a magnificent unified orchestral performance. In the record catalogue there are a number of rewarding recordings of Mahler’s Sixth and I have admired two live accounts that both happen to be performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker. From 2004 at the Philharmonie, Berlin, Claudio Abbado fashions the architecture of the score remarkably and inspires his players to great heights. Admirable too from 1966 at the Philharmonie, Berlin, Sir John Barbirolli provides a captivatingly taut and coherent account on Testament. For my money this recording of Rattle’s 2018 performance is quite outstanding and can take its place alongside those from Abbado and Barbirolli.

Both of Rattle’s concerts were recorded live at Philharmonie, Berlin, with the 2018 account having crystal clear sound, natural presence and excellent balance, with a remarkable level of detail. Originally a radio recording on analogue tape the 1987 concert has been digital remastered but isn’t of the same elevated quality, having less clarity and depth. No audience applause has been left on the audio recordings.

On the Blu-ray disc the concert video of the 2018 performance, the video director and production engineers demonstrate their skill gained from the wealth of experience gained from running the Berliner Philharmoniker virtual concert hall. As I have come to expect, the High Definition picture quality of the concert video is entirely satisfying with a wide array of telling shots including sensible and appropriate close-ups together with the usual choice of stereo and surround sound. I enjoyed the sixty seven minute documentary ‘Echoing an Era’ concerning Rattle’s time as Berliner Philharmoniker chief conductor. Described as a bonus, Rattle also gives a ten-minute Introduction. As yet I haven’t used the personal code provided for downloading the high-resolution audio file of both concert recordings. The integral booklet in German and English contains plenty of photographs and information including two helpful and interesting essays titled ‘Disaster, Death and Destiny: Mahler’s Sixth Symphony’ by Hermann Danuser and ‘The Sower’s Rich Harvest: Simon Rattle’s era as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker’ by Frederik Hanssen.

From Rattle’s 2018 farewell concert the performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is one of the finest I know. The 1987 debut concert is much less successful, although it does serve as an interesting document nevertheless.

Michael Cookson
Audio CDs
CD 1 - Recorded Live, 19/20 June 2018 Philharmonie, Berlin - 24-bit / 192 kHz
Sir Simon Rattle’s last concert as chief conductor as Berliner Philharmoniker at Philharmonie, Berlin
CD 2 - From Sender Freies Berlin (now Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (rbb)) radio archive - Recorded Live, 14/15 November 1987 Philharmonie, Berlin - Transfer from analogue tape, digital remastering
Sir Simon Rattle’s debut concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker at Philharmonie, Berlin
Blu-ray disc:
High Resolution Audio (Pure Audio) - All recordings of lossless studio master quality:
Symphony No. 6 from 20th June 2018 - 2.0 PCM Stereo 24bit / 96 kHz & 5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio 24bit / 96 kHz
Symphony No. 6 from 15th November 1987 - 2.0 PCM Stereo 24bit/ 96 kHz (recorded in 48kHz)
High Definition video of 20th June 2018 farewell concert
i) Documentary ‘Echoing an Era’ Rattle’s time as chief conductor with Berliner Philharmoniker [67.00]
ii) Bonus, Introduction by Sir Simon Rattle [10.00]
Picture Format: Full HD 1080 / 60i – 16.9
Audio Format: 2.0 PCM Stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD MA
Audio Download
24-bit download code for high resolution audio file of both concert recordings
Integral Booklet:
72 pages - Essays in German & English
Digital Concert Hall
7 Day Ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker's virtual concert hall
Hardcover Edition
24.5 x 15.5 x 2.2 cm: 550g (approx)



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