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<<  -- 3 --  David Wilkins    MONUMENTAL ACHIEVEMENTS

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With the Sixth Symphony, the pendulum of choice might just swing back to the 1967 Sony recording. This is the most starkly fatalistic of the Mahler symphonic cycle -- one of those pieces (like the Sibelius Fourth Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Pathetique) where there just doesn't seem to be anywhere to go afterwards. It always, now, reminds me of interviewing Richard Goode after a performance of Beethoven's (last) C minor piano sonata when the audience kept cheering for an encore. 'What could I possibly play to follow that?' he enquired. All present took it, rightly, as a rhetorical question and did our best to nod agreement.

Leonard Bernstein - Mahler - Symphony No 6. Copyright (c) Sony Music Entertainment Inc

In both versions (coincidentally (?) the last symphony of the two cycles to be recorded), Bernstein takes the opening march at a purposeful Allegro energico. Barbirolli is amazingly, bleakly, persuasive at a much slower tempo but, unquestionably, without doing what the composer intended. Throughout the faster movements, Bernstein is possessed by the daemon of neurosis that drives this work to its nihilistic conclusion. He can't quite match Karajan's extraordinary poetry in the Andante moderato -- surely, Mahler's most beautiful single movement -- but, elsewhere, he drives his orchestras to phenomenal degrees of individual virtuosity and corporate commitment [listen -- Sony disc 8 track 3, 5:40-6:40]. Thankfully, he has no truck with those who remove the third hammer-blow from the last movement. Death is, as needs be, always in the air. The Vienna Philharmonic in 1988 (DG) stretch their various lips and sinews as powerfully as the 1967 NYPO but seem a touch more bludgeoned into their effects than the full-blooded, unhesitant participation of the Americans. It's a very marginal choice, this one. Tomorrow, I might prefer the later recording. Enough, therefore, to say that they are both fantastic and difficult -- I would say impossible were it not for Tennstedt's live LPO version -- to equal in other performances.

Bernstein - Mahler - CD 5 Volume II. Copyright (c) Deutsche Grammophon GmbH

The Seventh Symphony was, for a long time, the Cinderella of the cycle. Bernstein's 1965 (Sony) recording was not the first but did the magical most in converting pumpkins and mice into a glittering carriage -- thus ensuring that it does, now, go to the ball (in concerts and on disc) in all its full splendour. The sheer enthusiasm of the performance, for all its sense of orchestral tightness and exploratory uncertainty, is an uninhibited vindication of Mahler's drift into more complex, less immediately attractive expression. Twenty years later (with the NYPO again), the DG recording is, if anything, even more astonishingly played and even more precipitously engaged [listen -- DG volume 2 disc 5 track 1, 0:04-1:06]. There is no milking of the potential sentimentality of the second Nachtmusik and the energy of the finale is of Olympian proportions. Astonishing playing -- both times around. I can think of no greater compliment than that the thoroughbred NYPO gallop towards and over the finishing line without raising the spectres of sweat, exhaustion (and relief to have survived) invoked by Solti's more lauded Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the next-best recording.

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Copyright © 27 August 2001 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK

 

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