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Symphony No. 6 Super Audio CD
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Bamberger Symphoniker - Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie - Jonathan Nott, direction
One of the most bracing, revelatory Mahler Sixths on disc. BBC MUSIC ORCHESTRAL CHOICE Performance ***** Recording **** --BBC Music Magazine , Jan'14
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In the first movement, Nott fails to make any tempo distinction between the opening march in A minor, and the sweeping, lyrical second subject - the so-called "Alma" theme in A major. In this sense, he's a throwback to Bernstein, Solti, Abravanel and Kubelik. Granted, that's pretty illustrious company. But today's conductors have figured out that the first movement is essentially a struggle between these two polar opposite subjects, with the coda combining the "Alma" theme (in major) with fast march rhythms in the low strings and timpani. Boulez, Pappano and van Zweden (Dallas) are conductors who take the march noticeably slower than the lyrical second subject, and emphasize the 'jack boot' quality of that march in the process. That may or may not have been what Mahler had in mind, but it certainly makes for more contrast and struggle within the first movement. Nott is a tad monotonous in his one dimensional approach here. That said, the lovely and pastoral 'cowbell' episode - a sort of artificial third subject - could hardly have been rendered to greater perfection than here, lending a much needed sense of repose from all the hubbub.
Performed in scherzo/andante order, the two inner movements come off about as well as you'll ever hear them. It's clear that Nott rehearsed his Bambergers thoroughly through the many ups and downs, back and forths of the scherzo, as sudden 'hairpin' changes of tempo are executed on the turn of a dime. Really well done! So is the slow movement, where Nott really pushes forward through the movement's highly emotional, climactic passage. He makes the point that Alpine daydreams need not be slow ones to be musically effective (the movement is marked andante moderato).
As always with Mahler six, the finale is a symphony within a symphony. It almost doesn't matter what happened in the first three movements - all Mahler 6 performances must be judged foremost upon their respective finales. For the most part, Jonathan Nott strongly endures all the baptisms-by-fire in this quixotic, western front of a finale. And once again, pastoral 'cowbell' episodes could hardly be rendered any better, or recorded any better either. But what hangs me up here happens at the 26 minute mark (29:30 is the finale's timing). Like Michael Gielen - and who in their right mind would ever argue with Gielen! - Nott offers an impressionistic treatment of the brief 'false victory' passage. It's as though we're suddenly witnessing a victory parade as imagined by Debussy. In fact, with its somewhat soppy violin lines (which should be merely accompanying the horns), it's worse than that. For me, it just doesn't work. Also - and this is a very, VERY minor complaint - the cymbal roll at the end of this passage is supposed to be a plate roll (mit tellern), meaning that it should be one cymbal rolling against another, and not sticks upon a cymbal. In short, it's the wrong sound. Still, it's hard to complain when both the playing and the recorded sound are THIS good. When's the last time a Mahler 6 actually made you pay attention to what the harps were doing? (Mehta/Israel Phil. was good way too).
On the plus side, the first movement is delivered with energy and conviction. The tempo is fast and unyielding when the second, so-called "Alma" subject arrives - there's no romantic lingering. Bernstein first showed the possibility of taking an even more hectic pace, but he used it to wring tension and anguish out of the music. Nott doesn't. The effect, then, is to skate over many expressive possibilities. The Scherzo, which comes second (I won't go into the vexed arguments over the order of the four movements), is approached in much the same way as the first movement, and here Nott's quick step works somewhat better. But he doesn't dig in or search for telling details,much less find the hair-raising angst of Tennstedt's live recording with the London Phil. on their house label.
I suppose that energy and conviction are enough to persuade some listeners that justice is being done to the score. The problem is that orchestral technique has improved so dramatically over the years that even a titanic score like the sixth is within reach of regional orchestras, so expectations are higher. If you can't dazzle us with virtuosic playing, you need to find something special to say. In the lyrical Andante Moderato, something special means a heartrending melancholy that is tempered with sweetness - beyond the lovely melody lies Mahler's dream of an ecstatic world as the music rises to the mountain heights. Nott is just straightforward, showing a nice touch for gentle phrasing but not much more. the pace is on the fast side and rather unvaried.
The finale is one of Mahler's apocalyptic movements, and the cause for the Sixth to earn the title "Tragic." Microphones can't disguise the thinness of the Bamberg strings at the outset or the ordinary solo playing from tuba, horn, etc. The reading becomes tepid where what is wanted is a premonition of disaster. The main body of the movement proceeds well enough, but there's no substitute for having a Bernstein, Karajan, or Tennstedt on the podium leading a great orchestra. The same could be said for the entire performance.