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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #6 "Tragic"

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi
Telarc CD-80444
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I've listened to this CD twelve to fifteen times over the past two to three weeks, compared it with established favourite versions, and I can honestly say that I cannot yet arrive at the usual "early-definitive" view that I normally can at this stage. So, what I propose to do is give you some more random thoughts and impressions to those that I would normally offer and hope that, in time, I can reach a more honed and settled opinion.

I'll start with the recorded sound and this is going to be an easy part. Technically this is one of the best new orchestral recordings I have heard for a long time. It is big and spacious with lots of bloom and air around the instruments. It's a general sound picture: concert hall balance. We are up in the second tier of seating back in the hall. I'm not sure if any reverb has been added. I believe the hall in Atlanta is not large and that, according to the notes, some measures were taken to assist the sound. However, everything is done in the best possible taste. My only caveat would be to ask whether this is the right kind of sound picture for Mahler's Sixth. There is good detailing of the soloists and the sections, but I just have the impression that sometimes the more piquant and the more intimate moments of the score get dissipated in such a big picture. The big moments, of course, are held by the recording with ease and no "crowding" on the ear. When the orchestra is going full out you are aware of everything, every frequency. But my caveat is marginal and there will be many who will be blown away by the sound which, I imagine, would be sensational on really topflight equipment - which I do not possess. "Techheads" will love the entire page of liner notes devoted to every piece of equipment that is utilised. Right down to what brand of cables and the "Shotgun Terminators". I shudder to think what these are. Presumably men who stand by ready to pick off members of the orchestra who play bum notes. Not that they are needed, let me add quickly.

The orchestral playing is faultless. They encompass every aspect of the score with ease. I really can't praise them too highly and I'm not just doing that because I know two members of the orchestra are reading this. Maybe the strings, violins in particular, sound small. But this may be due to decisions in the control room, or my tastes and perceptions, and it is a small quibble. The brass in particular sound very full and mellow, very European (that's a compliment!) not wearing on the ear and full of subtlety. I especially enjoyed the principal trumpet who has a lovely line in vibrato. I wonder where he (or she) spends his (or her) evenings! ;-) would have liked the woodwind choir to "play out" a bit more. Again, this might have more to do with recorded balance and there is no doubt that there are times when the sound of them fighting their way out of the texture brings its own dividends in the heat of battle. Percussion is splendid, bass drum especially well caught. All in all this an interesting sound for Mahler 6th. Not the sharp, jutting and close sound we are used to: much more burnished and upholstered. Do I actually like it? I don't really know yet!

To the interpretation, and the fat is in the fire from the word go. What Yoel Levi does at the very beginning is, I believe, what will make or break this recording for many, if not most, Mahlerians and it is here that also pivots my own reactions and my lack of firm conclusions. The fact is that Levi launches his march on the fastest end of the scale. He seems to take Mahler's initial "Allegro energico" as his motto and what we get is a very hyper, almost manic impression. If this isn't problem enough there is no exposition repeat to counterbalance. There are two things to be said about this. If it is the case that Levi doesn't include the repeat out of absolute artistic choice then we can be sure that his intention is to deliver a very particular, even radical, view of the movement and therefore of the work as a whole. If, however, the exposition repeat is missing so as to fit the whole work on one CD (which it wouldn't if the repeat had been observed) then that doesn't apply, and I have no way of knowing which. For the sake of this review I will assume the former. What emerges then is one of two ideas.

1) Levi wants to stress that the tragedy that is at the core of this symphony does not overwhelm the hero until the last movement. In which case what the first movement in this interpretation is intended to be seen as is a portrait of the man of action and vitality before all is taken from him. If so then I do applaud him for it. I have long believed that the power of this symphony is in a depiction of the concept of tragedy framed by classical structure. In that case it is only right we see the hero in all his pre-tragic form, "memories from before the fall", if you like. Taken like this the implication of this first movement is for its inspiration to be like that behind Strauss's Ein Heldenleben: the hero striding out, complete with soul mate, whose theme in the second subject is able to fly with even great "Schwung" at the tempo the music is going when it arrives. There are actually moments of joy in this movement under Levi, but I'm not sure whether that isn't going too far in the opposite direction to too much tragedy from the start.

2) The intention is simpler. Levi wants us to be excited by the movement as a tremendous orchestral showpiece, an illustration of where the classical symphony first movement had reached when Mahler came to write it. If this is the case then the missing exposition repeat is all the more regretted. You are much more aware of the sections of this piece. The pastoral sections emerge very delineated both as part of the structure, but also by the way they are played with each strand carefully brought out. The tempo is relaxed a little here, too, though it is comparative.

I'll say straight away I don't take to fast Mahler Sixth first movements. I do think that, in spite of my remarks regarding classical framing, a more concentrated, heavier tempo for the main march is needed. Mahler himself added the right word "Heftig" and Levi seems to ignore that. But judging it must be one of the great challenges. Otherwise, as ultimately with Yoel Levi, the march rhythm fails to really ingrain itself into your mind and haunt you right the way through the symphony. As quick as it is here and it doesn't really insist itself into the consciousness and is over before it's absorbed. Full marks to the orchestra for hanging on, though. This is, if anything, a noble failure, with the best of intentions. Not without interest because of the questions it makes us ask about what this symphony is ultimately all about.

The Scherzo placed second (as it should be) forms a fine counterpart to the first movement. This is less controversial because a performance like this would have fitted into a performance with a more conventional first movement. I was impressed by the Altvaterisch trios which are played "straight" with no artifice or emotional pulling about but also have a nice "lift" to them. When the main material resumes the contrast is suitably stark, very like that which Levi makes between the main march in the first movement and the pastoral sections. Here the, now broken-backed, march still gives the impression of a man of action constantly impeded by thoughts of distant tragedy not yet upon him.

I liked the Andante under Levi. It is the haven of peace that it should be but it retains the right amount of uneasiness beneath the calm. This seems to be achieved by not giving in to it. It's rather a stoic reading with care given to the weight of the climaxes which emerge with a purity of utterance that is very moving. I know that I part company with so many Mahlerians who regard the Sixth as needing to wring the withers and leave us emotionally exhausted. I always believe that the conductor who fails to see that this is more than melodrama is missing its subtlety and its power. That is not to say there are not moments of great emotion (note the trumpet vibrato again) but, for me, it should be held under some kind of control, exemplified best by Levi's refusal to broaden at the climax leaving himself a sharpness of focus.

Now I'm going to contradict myself. I said I was having problems making up my mind. There were some occasions in listening to this when I felt the Andante was too comfortable. I can't understand why sometimes it satisfied me and sometimes it didn't. I can only think that it had something to do with taking the movement as a piece all to itself or taking it as part of the whole. When taken as part of the whole it didn't really seem to fit. It was as if, following the vitality and energy of the first two movements, to have married it to the interpretation of these two movements the third should have been even quicker, more like George Szell or Barbirolli (when live) in tempo. This view seems to confirm a suspicion I had started to harbour after having lived with this recording for some weeks that may be confirmed by the interpretation of the last movement: that this is an interpretation in two parts. First and second movements, and third and fourth movements. Of course I may have missed the point. Yoel Levi might have had the intention of changing the musical geography and by doing so undermine our expectations. But I somehow don't think that's part of his outlook and what we have here is another legacy from that problematic first movement.

You see, the last movement is the most conventional interpretation of all and it's possible to say that, playing it like this, Levi misses an opportunity. I wish he had had the courage of the convictions he showed in the first movement and gone for broke with a kind of last movement that complimented it. Like, say, Anton Nanut. Only Nanut's first movement is a little more weighty (with the repeat) and so the two opposite ends of the work appear to balance. Under Levi the structure appears to me fundamentally undermined by a very deliberate, very dark (impressive on its own) interpretation of the introductory material in the three sections when it occurs (bars 16-48, 237-270, 537-574 - what Floros calls the "music from far away".) Thomas Sanderling links clearly these sections back to the pastoral sections of the first movement and the cowbells in the Andante. A remarkable piece of symphonic planning that seems to be outside Levi's ken.

The build up to the first hammer blow is bold and unafraid. The way that the woodwind choir hang on like grim death, squealing plangently as the hammer comes down, is very exciting, though. The hammer is bold and very deep. I like a more precise, placed sound, but there is no doubting that they are there. (I did think that the "health warning" on the liner notes was unnecessary, though.) The build up to the second hammer blow is even more towering, almost grand guignol, but he pulls it off. Just.

All in all, apart from the deliberate tempo for the three "music from far away" sections, I cannot fault Levi in this movement. It's just that with his radical approach earlier on in the symphony, agree or disagree with it, this movement rather disappoints by being so conventional. Superbly played and recorded though it is. A small point: I thought the trombones in the coda either played too loudly or were boosted by the engineers. I suspect the latter. I really did find them too intrusive in what should be a "crawling away" of the music before fate confirms our hero's end.

As I said at the outset, I'm sorry this has been so diffuse. It is as if we are faced with two different interpretations in one. One that starts out with one intention and then seems to lose its way and fall back on more conventional ground. Interesting. I look forward to hearing this recording a lot more times because it is always good when a Mahler performance perplexes and sets questions, almost comments upon itself. Better that than a routine "run through" which you can hear on some occasions. Do I recommend you buy it? Yes, I do, actually. It certainly won't disappoint you. Then again, maybe I've just missed the point, lost the plot, my faculties, my mind. All these things are possible.

Copyright © 1999, Tony Duggan