Benjamin Zander has received high praise for his Mahler symphony performances and recordings over the years. He was apparently working his way through a Mahler cycle for Telarc Records when that label had a restructuring that altered plans. Zander had recorded all the symphonies but for Nos. 2, 7 and 8. Thus, it appears he will complete the project on Linn Records. That is good news, because Zander is a fine Mahler conductor, as this recording amply demonstrates.
This 2nd was issued in the fall of 2013 on SACD, but without the bonus track on which Zander discusses the work in detail. In 2011 I reviewed Chailly's Mahler 2nd here (Accentus Blu-ray ACC10238) and found it quite convincing, but the following year I reviewed (or, actually, re-reviewed) the Boulez (EuroArts Blu-ray 2054424), and marginally favored it over the Chailly. But for those wanting a video performance of this epic work, either one of these would be quite satisfactory.
This new effort by Zander compares favorably with those and the other great Mahler 2nds by Bernstein, Kaplan and a host of others. One of Zander's greatest strengths is his attention to detail, not only in regard to dynamics, but in the way he so deftly phrases the music, with generally judicious tempo choices, crisp attacks from the orchestra, and an intelligent but rather sparing use of rubato. He shapes everything into a logical whole, without ever sounding calculating or mechanical. Zander draws utterly committed performances from the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, and his soloists are excellent too. Normally, I would prefer less expansive tempos in the finale especially in the latter half, but his slower pacing works well here, creating an air of hopeful expectation as he keenly builds the music toward its hard-earned triumphant ending, which comes through with crushing, almost otherworldly power on this splendidly recorded disc. In the first movement Zander captures the sense of mystery and drama with exceptional playing: those who think the London Symphony Orchestra is the leading orchestra of London may be pleasantly surprised by the fine work of the Philharmonia here, an ensemble which was widely regarded in the early 1960s as England's greatest orchestra. (It then nearly disbanded and became the New Philharmonia before eventually reclaiming its old name.)
Sarah Connolly's Urlicht is beautifully sung and Miah Persson sings with such passion and commitment in the finale. As suggested above the sound reproduction by the Linn engineers is excellent. For those wanting a new Mahler 2nd this splendid effort by Zander will surely satisfy them. Without doubt, this performance ranks with the finest Mahler 2nds on disc. Mahler mavens will find the third disc commentary by Zander on the Mahler 2nd quite enlightening. Urgently recommended.
Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings