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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 6 in A minor (1905) [84:38]
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Six Maeterlinck Songs, Op 13 (1910-1913) [19:29]
Jard van Nes (mezzo-soprano), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. October 1989, Grotezaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Texts in four languages are included in the booklet
Presto CD
DECCA 430 165-2 [45:09 + 59:03]

First impressions matter - and as soon as an experienced Mahlerian friend and I heard the tempo adopted by Chailly for the introduction to this, Mahler’s most serious symphony, we immediately observed, “Too slow”. Overall, at twenty-five minutes the opening movement is one of the slowest - if not the slowest – in the catalogue. Four minutes in, and the pace picks up but by then the damage has been done. Everything is very legato, timpani are unduly muffled and the attack on phrases, especially by lower instruments such as the cellos, is limp. Everything is too heavy and lacks bite and the contrast between the martial section and the dreamy, pastoral, central passage is inadequate.

Prior to listening to this, I checked on the reviews by another Mahler aficionado friend and stumbled across this judgement: “Chailly is consistent - all his Mahler is steady, controlled, beautifully executed, and low on excitement.” I tried to listen without prejudice but can only concede the aptness of that verdict. The openness of the recording acoustic accommodates the grandeur of Chailly’s interpretative stance but militates against the requisite immediacy. The coda, too, which should be thrilling, is anticlimactically plodding and deliberate.

The first timpani strikes of the Scherzo are similarly enervated and once again the crispness of phrasing which should permit its individual episodes to be properly accented is missing and the movement becomes too homogenised. Individual instruments, such as the clarinet and horns sometimes find a more distinct articulation but Chailly’s “smoothification” emasculates them. The whole movement is too fast and flowing, lacking introspection. To play it as the Lšndler which it superficially appears to be, ignores the spirit of wildness which pervades this movement. The Andante is essentially bland; a generalised melancholy will not do.

The opening of the finale lacks impact. It may be that the low recording level exacerbates that deficiency, however, and quite often one could wish for that the engineers had brought instruments further forward better to replicate a live experience. Having said that, from then on, it is like listening to a different performance altogether. Chailly’s tempi are finally much better judged and his expansive manner works; it is as if both conductor and orchestra have woken up. As a result, this is the most successful movement by far, a success compounded by three very satisfactory hammer blows and a properly cataclysmic final A minor chord - indeed, the final few minutes are a blazing glory, suffused with the passion and momentum missing from the three preceding movements.

I cannot say that for me the allure of this album is in any way enhanced by the inclusion of the six Zemlinsky songs. Jard van Nes’ singing is impeccably rich and vibrant but the songs themselves, fleeting moments of lush harmony apart, are wearisomely aimless and unvarying in character, without any sense of structure, purpose or direction – and the allusive Symbolist poetry is frankly pretentious.

Ralph Moore

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