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Mahler Symphony No. 6

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  • Mahler Symphony No. 6

    I’ve had some time during the past few days to listen and evaluate a few Mahler 6 performances and recordings of Mahler’s 6th. Whether you are new to Mahler or have been listening to him for decades as I have, I thought you might enjoy the rambling that follows.

    The re-visit, if I can call it that, was prompted by the recent arrival of Jaap Van Zweden version (2013) and by the recent arrival of one of Tony Duggan’s recommendations, which is Mariss Jansons conducting the LSO live in 2003 (SACD). As always, I referenced these with Bernstein’s DGG set with him conducting the Vienna for the M6, as well as Abbado on DGG and Boulez on DGG (whose version I really liked when I was younger!)

    To begin, let’s dismiss the van Zweden version from future consideration. It’s good, but in comparison to the two that I will dwell upon, I just don’t think its up to par with Jansons or Bernstein. It’s perhaps a bit too controlled emotionally for my taste. This surprises me as I have heard Van Zweden conduct Mahler 1 live in with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra when I lived there a few years ago. I loved it and thought it was as good an M1 as I have ever heard. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by Van Zweden’s M6. Jaap is well known as a Bruckner “expert” and M1 (composed 1887-88) is actually much closer to Bruckner (1824-1896) than M6. M1 was early Mahler, and perhaps that’s where Van Zwedens’ strength lies for Mahler. M6 on the other hand, pushed the late Romantic era to new heights and was a mature work of Mahler’s. Mahler, by the way, greatly admired Bruckner who was his friend and who he once described as “half simpleton, half God”. I presume he meant both parts of that phrase as a compliment in earnest.


    I’ll start by saying that Jansons’ M6 is a delight. Tony Duggan really got that one right. For those unfamiliar with Tony (1954-2012) he was a reviewer with encyclopedic knowledge of Mahler performances whose body of work will likely never be duplicated (http://www.musicweb-international.com/Mahler/index.html). Jansons' M6 is a fine, beautiful and nuanced performance. I could easily listen to this one repeatedly. But that’s the key! The phrase “I could easily listen to” is what separates Lenny from Jansons. But more on that in a moment. What Jansons really has going for him is that his emotional dynamisms (is that even a word?) have gradients that give it real nuance to the performance. In the first movement alone, his peaks (emotion, volume and tempi) go from a range of say 7-10, and there are real differences in perception to a 7 versus an 8, 9 or 10. At the low end, he would have a range from say a 3 to 5. Lenny on the other hand, reminds me of the famous line from the movie “Spinal Tap”- “our amplifiers go to 11”. And indeed, Lenny goes to 11. A lot. And at the high end of things, he may tone it down to a 9 or an 8, but almost never a 7. On the low end of things, it’s a bit different. Mariss may go to a 4, but Lenny goes to a 2 and sometimes makes you hold your breath while going to 1. (My scale is only relative and even exaggerated but is used to make a point). The net effect of this extraordinary emotional and tempo range reminds me of another musical analogy. Wynton Marsalis once said of Billy Holiday’s voice that what makes her so special is that sometimes you have to have a little bit of sour when you taste something sweet, because it makes the sweet seem all the much sweeter. That’s exactly how I feel about Lenny's Mahler. It’s probably also why Tony Duggan really doesn’t like Lenny’s 6th and dismisses it as “melodramatic”. But that’s not the word I would use. However, Tony obviously loves the more tempered performance of Jansons. Perhaps it appeals to his more British sensibilities? I have no idea. And the truth is I love the Jansons performance as well, but I would argue that Lenny brings something to the table that nobody else does, as we shall see, particularly in the 4th movement.

    What is astonishing to me is that in the first movement, Mariss and Lenny both come in at a virtual dead heat at 23’01” and 23’00” respectively. But it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, Lenny is always up to several minutes longer in all the other movements (3' or roughly 10% longer in the 4th movement alone!), but again, because he is the fire-breathing dragon, it doesn’t feel that way. I could have sworn Lenny's times are in fact quicker. They feel quicker. But they are not. They are longer and once again the 4th movement is where he uses that time to his great advantage.

    Before discussing the last movement, a word or two about the sound. Nobody can deny that Keith Johnson is a superb recording engineer, but here, the great Tony Faulkner has got him beat hands down. The 2003 Jansons LSO live was SACD whereas the Van Zweden DSO live was a redbook CD recorded in 2013, and perhaps SACD is the reason. But no matter the reason, the more modern DSO live performance sounds, well, as if it has a bit more “digitalis” to its sound. I found this disappointing and surprising coming from Johnson. Was it due to the mastering? I cannot say. Perhaps more surprising, although the Bernstein/Vienna was a 1989 digital redbook recording and has a somewhat flatter soundstage than the Jansons, its overall sound is quite commendable and enjoyable, even though the DGG tonmeister at the time, Hans-Peter Schweigmann is not exactly an audiophile household name (unlike Johnson and Faulkner). One disappointment about the Bernstein recording are the famous hammer blows in the 4th movement. While Keith Johnson’s recording of them caused me to crap in my pants, Bernstein’s DGG seemed lightweight by comparison. I actually thought Faulkner’s SACD got it just right among the three; impactful enough to give it real gravitas, but not overdone or too light.

    Let’s turn our attention to the 4th movement as I make my case for Lenny. Right out of the gate, Lenny let’s you know this ain’t going to be a walk in the park. This symphony is about Tragedy for which it is aptly named. It’s about the devastation of a man who has lost it all, all hope and has fallen hard and in the end has nothing left. The 4th movement is the sum of all that has come before. Compelling narratives, joyous efforts that turn into darkness and indeed catastrophe for which the “blows of fate” signal the despair of a man who, when he performed this work, surely knew he was very ill and in all likelihood knew he going to die prematurely. (The work was originally composed in 1903 and revised until its first performance in 1906. He was diagnosed with an incurable heart condition in 1907 and died in 1911 at age 50.). Jansons tells a story in the 4th movement that is more like “hmmm, well it seems a little cloudy outside. Maybe the sun will come out, but, nah, I guess not. Oh, too bad”). Of all the 6ths’ I have heard, it is only Lenny’s that makes me feel the total despair that Mahler himself must have felt. Lenny’s use of the double basses at the end just takes my breath away. The reason I find the Bernstein performance to be the one I would have to take to my desert island is this. Returning to the way I characterized the Jansons performance as “one I could easily listen to”, this one clearly is not. It takes work! But it is simply the only version of this incredible work that brings tears to my eyes and makes me cry at the end. Its not about just hearing the music at this point; its about feeling the profound loss that Mahler is describing (actually talking to us) through his music Only Lenny makes me feel this in a way the others do not. My sense is that if Mahler were in the room with all the famous conductors who have performed this work, he would look right at Lenny and say about his conducting “now that’s what I’m talkin’ about”.

    Part of the tremendous affinity Bernstein has for Mahler can be found in his writings. The following are excepts from an article Bernstein wrote in 1981:

    “Basically, of course, all of Mahler's music is about Mahler – which means simply that it is about conflict. Think of it: Mahler the creator vs. Mahler the performer; the Jew vs. the Christian; the Believer vs. the Doubter; the Naïf vs. the Sophisticate; the provincial Bohemian vs. the Viennese homme du monde; the Faustian Philosopher vs. the Oriental Mystic; the operatic symphonist who never wrote an opera. But mainly the battle rages between Western Man at the turn of the century and the life of the spirit. Out of this opposition proceeds the endless list of antitheses – the whole roster of Yang and Yin – that inhabit Mahler's music. This dual vision of Mahler's, which tore him apart all his life, is the vision we have finally come to perceive in his music.”

    “For the doubleness of the music is the doubleness of the man. Mahler was split right down the middle, with the curious result that whatever quality is perceptible and definable in his music, the diametrically opposite quality is equally so. Of what other composer can this be said? Can we think of Beethoven as both roughhewn and epicene? Is Debussy both subtle and blatant? Mozart both refined and raw? Stravinsky both objective and maudlin? Unthinkable. But Mahler, uniquely, is all of these – roughhewn and epicene, subtle and blatant, refined, raw, objective, maudlin, brash, shy, grandiose, self-annihilating, confident, insecure, adjective, opposite, adjective, opposite.“

    “He took all (all!) the basic elements of German music, including the clichés, and drove them to their ultimate limits. He turned rests into shuddering silences; upbeats into volcanic preparations as for a death blow. Luftpausen became gasps of shock or terrified suspense; accents grew into titanic stresses to be achieved by every conceivable means, both sonic and tonic. Ritardandi were stretched into near-motionlessness; accelerandi became tornadoes; dynamics were refined and exaggerated to a point of neurasthenic sensibility. Mahler's marches are like heart attacks, his chorales like all Christendom gone mad. The old conventional four-bar phrases are delineated in steel; his most traditional cadences bless like the moment of remission from pain. Mahler is German music multiplied by n. “

    “The result of all this exaggeration is, of course, that neurotic intensity which for so many years was rejected as unendurable, and in which we now find ourselves mirrored. And there are concomitant results: an irony almost too bitter to comprehend; excesses of sentimentality that still make some listeners wince; moments of utter despair, often the despair of not being able to drive all this material even further, into some kind of paramusic that might at last cleanse us. But we are cleansed, when all is said and done; no person of sensibility can come away from the Ninth Symphony without being exhausted and purified. And that is the triumphant result of all this purgatory, justifying all excesses: we do ultimately encounter an apocalyptic radiance, a glimmer of what peace must be like.”

    So there you have it. Bernstein’s Mahler 6th like so many of his other Mahler performances, provide a tangible link between what Bernstein felt and how Bernstein conducted Mahler’s music. It’s awfully hard for me not to have a deep reverence for that connection.

    Fortunately, his works will be recorded anew for generations to come. Next up, I just ordered Michael Tilson Thomas’s Mahler 6 with the SFO which was recorded live on Sept 12, 2001, one day after 911. Although he thought about changing the program, he did not. Tony Duggan loved the Tilson Thomas’ performance of that 6th. Tilson Thomas, as most everyone knows, was a protégé of Bernstein, so I’m most curious to listen to that performance and see how it compares to that of his mentor.

  • #2
    I like Bernstein's, too. My other favorites are Karajan/Berlin on SACD and Solti/CSO.
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    • #3
      Nice discussion! Barbirolli!
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      • #4
        The old Penguin Guide gave high ratings to the Bernstein and Solti's with the CSO. The Solti/Decca was the first recording made after Solti took the post with the CSO.

        Thanks for the excellent commentary!
        Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
        Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
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        • #5
          Mahler: His Time Has Come by Leonard Bernstein


          Nice commentary Marty!

          Lenny sure loved him some double bass - check their prominence at the opening and throughout his '89 Resurrection Symphony.
          Last edited by tima; 10-17-2017, 11:58 PM.

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          • #6
            Great thread!
            Bernstein w/either NY Phil or Vienna. Barbaroli on EMI, Kubelic on DG, For a more modern version Tilson Thomas w/SF Symphony.
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            • Guest's Avatar
              Guest commented
              Editing a comment
              Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics has some fine releases on SACD, particularly #2. He is a careful study, though not a risk taker. Agree about yr choices.

          • #7
            I'm a big fan of all things Benjamin Zander. Check out his 6th with the Philharmonia on Telarc (with an informative lecture disc) or even better, his recording with the Boston Philharmonic on Carlton.

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            • #8
              Thanks for the informative post Marty. I just ordered a copy of the DG Bernstein LP's...which is currently backordered.
              Christian
              System Gear

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              • rbbert
                rbbert commented
                Editing a comment
                I think the DG Bernstein Mahler was all recorded at 16/44.1; the Columbia series was analog, but IIRC the LP's had the typical bad Columbia sound. FWIW.

              • rockitman
                rockitman commented
                Editing a comment
                I realized the digital source which under most circumstances I would avoid...but in this case I wanted to hear this performance as I have no version of Sym 6..

            • #9
              Thanks Marty....

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