There are so many recordings of Mahler's symphonies available today that doing a comprehensive survey of them would involve writing a sizable book. Even to cover just one symphony would require a titanic effort. But let me say this: most Mahler recordings I have encountered, especially those from the last two decades or so, have been reasonably strong efforts. Rarely has a composer been so well served on recording. Does Mahler attract some special commitment from conductors and orchestras? It would seem so. Here we have Ricardo Chailly in the midst of his second cycle of the Mahler symphonies. I have performances from both his first and second sets and have found him one of the better conductors of Mahler, perhaps among the finest. I reviewed his Mahler Second and Eighth from this Accentus Music cycle here in 2011 (Accentus Blu-ray ACC10238 & ACC10222 respectively) and found them both quite fine.
This Sixth may well be on even a higher level. Chailly's tempo for the opening march theme is perfect to my ears. Some conductors take this theme too deliberately, giving it heft alright, but not enough forward motion. Chailly's phrasing of the Alma theme captures both the brightness and passion in this soaring melody and the development section is filled with tension and energy. An excellent first movement! The orchestra performs with precision and great sensitivity here and throughout the symphony.
Chailly chooses to follow with the Andante, not the Scherzo, as he had done in his first recording. Mahler mavens are aware of the controversy regarding placement of these movements: most conductors have chosen to put the Scherzo next, but I believe the structure of the symphony is better served with the Andante coming second. Others will disagree of course. At any rate, the Andante is lovely and beautifully phrased here, while the Scherzo is driving and vehement in its menace, though playful and quite charming in the trio sections. The finale is full of tension and grimness throughout, making you feel the agonies and tragedies Mahler supposedly foresaw. Chailly uses two hammer blows in the finale as Mahler had requested in his revision – there were originally three. Also, as almost every conductor does today, Chailly employs the first movement repeat.
Overall, this is one of the finest accounts of the Sixth that I know of, fully competitive with excellent versions by Bernstein, Boulez and others. On video Chailly has little competition: Bernstein, from a 1976 performance, and Abbado, from a 2006 Lucerne Festival performance, appear to be the only others in the catalogue. I haven't seen either but can say that the camera work, picture clarity and sound reproduction on this Accentus Music Blu-ray disc are first rate. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings