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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #6 in A minor

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik
Deutsche Grammophon Virtuoso 4787897
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Gramophone Magazine commented (as quoted on the jewel case) that Rafael Kubelik offered Mahler as a "reluctant neurotic". This approach gave us some classic Mahler recordings, including the lieder and the Symphony #1. Conversely, the Symphonies #2 and #8 came off as especially underpowered, but you could say that about other great Mahler cycles as well (Ozawa, Haitink). The truth is that Kubelik's Mahler is always great listening, even if he puts rustic charm and natural phrasing well above chaos and angst.

This Sixth sounds terrific, and hasn't been a single issue for some time. Kubelik's complete Deutsche Grammophon Beethoven, Dvořák, Mahler, and Schumann has been put in a nice box, but novice collectors will find this budget issue a good introduction to this work. It's not as heavy as either of Bernstein's, nor is it as personal as Tennstedt's (though the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra roundly outplays Klaus' rather sloppy London Philharmonic Orchestra). While not as harrowing as other versions, the Bavarians play with great intensity and strength. Kubelik's urgent pacing gives the music its menace when needed, and the whole symphony retains its tragic air without suffocating in its own weight. While some listeners might prefer a darker Mahler, the balance of beauty and pain here is very effective. The orchestra follows their leader's every whim, and though they lack some polish, the sound is earthy and quite moving.

The inner movements are really very beautiful – Scherzo before Andante, for those interested – and feature all the hallmarks of a classic Kubelik performance. The brass are strong, but also very warm. Those looking for Bernstein's wrenching punch in the gut will likely find Kubelik a touch cool, but he humanizes the composer in a way that few have done before or since, and the results are quite moving. The Finale is not the house of horrors that others have made it (and I hasten to say the music sounds pretty fabulous when you do it right). Rather, the idea of the "reluctant neurotic" comes to the fore here, with absolutely stunning playing allied to real tragedy. Perhaps the terrors of death are underplayed, but then again, you could easily argue different viewpoints on what that means, too. Kubelik certainly presents his vision with tremendous conviction, and the sound remains fine, if a touch dated. As a "MAHLER EXPERIENCE" this may not be everyone's cup of tea, but in terms of pure musical value, this disc – and indeed the entire cycle – ranks high.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman

Trumpet