Mahler Symphony No. 6 by Tony Duggan
Classical Music Web
In the same class as Sanderling is Benjamin Zander with the Boston Philharmonic on IMP (DMCD 93). In the first movement there is exactly the same kind of single-mindedness. As if Zander has worked out that what matters here is a drama symphonically based and sharply argued, one that would be blunted by too much romantic indulgence. Note, for example, the splendid crunch on the opening double basses. Conveyed against a relatively brisk underlying tempo, this delivery of the march that will dominate this movement takes care of Mahler's apparently contradictory tempo marking. There is weight, but there is also forward movement so when the fate motif on timpani crashes in it can stand the slightly held back nature Zander imparts to it. As too can the second subject "Alma Theme", beautifully coloured by the high woodwind shrieking from the texture. Zander is a fine example of the "less is more" philosophy that can bring such dividends. The development section finds some really sinister percussion in the close recorded balance which suits Zander's detached treatment for the pastoral interlude with cowbells which has a really modern feel to it, as if Schoenberg is looking over Mahler's shoulder. The whole movement is superbly held on course as also is the second movement Scherzo where, again, the lower strings really dig into their material trenchantly but keep the momentum going even through the "Altvaterisch" (literally "Old-Fatherish") trios which Zander pays the compliment of playing straight, without the kind of disfiguring jerks some conductors indulge in. Notice the presence of the tam-tam and also the various "wood-of-the-bow" effects the closer recorded balance allows you to hear. The descent at the close might not have quite the poison of Sanderling but its mixture of elegance and character pays dividend again.
I think Zander more than many sees the crucial relationship between the third movement and the Kindertotenlieder song roughly contemporary with it. (Something, surprisingly, other conductors often miss or don't mark quite as much. To get it right, as here, is to influence the whole mood and delivery of the movement down to a simpler utterance and one that, in the end, makes its particular sound much more moving. There's no "fat" on the music which is again placed the firmly in the twentieth century leading to the central climax clean and very pure. To overload this music with too much sentiment would be to spoil its vulnerability, a vulnerability swept away cruelly by the "return to business" ushered in at the start of the fourth movement.
The excellent liner notes to this recording make the point that the opening passage of the last movement is amongst the most remarkable music Mahler ever wrote and Zander certainly seems to reflect that, again seeming to have thought very deeply about what is going on. The emphasis is on expectation that something important is going to happen, a feeling that must have been added to by the fact that this is a recording of a "live performance". The build-up to the first hammer blow is carefully prepared and the arrival of the first blow itself allows us our first opportunity to hear what are, for me, the finest realisations in any available recording of these "percussion events" which are achieved here by a length of pipe being struck on a timpani case. As if to show off how good they are Zander is one of the few conductors who restores the third blow along with the original orchestration. Though I do wish he had followed Mahler's intention for each blow to diminish in volume, a dramatic effect Richard Strauss was never able to understand but which surely makes wonderful psychological sense. With all three blows played this is something of an opportunity missed.
Zander's Boston Philharmonic play very well. They are made up of professionals, semi-professionals and students, so perhaps don't have quite the deep corporate elan of the great international ensembles. But here is a case of a lesser orchestra playing beyond themselves and what they might lose a little in sheer "heft" they more than make up for in commitment and I never complain when I hear that.