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21.7.05

"The Return of the King" - Claudio Abbado in Mahler's 6th

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, C. Abbado / BPh
Claudio Abbado’s Mahler is always an event. “The Return of the Former King,” remarked a Berlin newspaper, noting Abbado’s first concert with the Berlin Philharmonic since he stepped down from his post as music director in 2002. The result was this Mahler 6th – a further step towards a complete (?) Mahler cycle of Abbado’s recorded with the Berliners in live performances. Although Abbado’s Mahler seldom strikes me as the most notable performance of any particular Mahler symphony (his accounts of the 7th, both with Chicago and Berlin, excepted), I’d declare the Italian maestro the supreme Mahler conductor of our times in a heartbeat.

Generally, Abbado combines an uncanny ability for lyrical lines with complete mastery of the rhythmic subtleties and insights that allow for superior absorption of the music. He never sacrifices the emotional content in favor of analytical rigor – yet he can hardly be accused of wringing every last ounce of feeling out of the notes (à la la Bernstein – not that there’s anything wrong with that… in Mahler, at any rate). Barbirolli brings more rawness; Zander a zanier punch; Bernstein dances and brings the Jewish elements to the fore; MTT has some of the finest touches when it comes to dramatic arch and unending lines; Boulez analyzes like none other, offering tremendous insights; Chailly knows all about orchestral polish. What has Abbado here that others don’t? Try him for his unimposing grasp of the music, his quiet, absolute authority, and the commitment he gets from the players in his orchestra, down to the last fiddler and the fourth flute.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, B. Zander
There’s humanity in his Mahler – and a universal message rather than a singular point of view. Sometimes that is more obvious (apart from the aforementioned 7ths, in the 2nd from Lucerne and 3rd from Berlin), sometimes less (5th and 9th from Berlin). This 6th symphony, perhaps the hardest to enjoy upon initial meeting, is a fierce struggle between life and optimism on one side and death and resignation on the other. It’s hard on our senses, but with several listenings it will invariably yield meaning. Indeed, to me it’s like an open book compared to the 7th which I find rather more impenetrable. Perhaps it is graspable because of it being designed like a classical symphony – though of a size and with outgrowths as if it had vacationed on Three Mile Island. The last movement alone is longer than anything Brahms ever wrote.

The 6th also contains two favorite debate items for Mahlerians. Should the Scherzo – so similar to the opening Allegro - be played as the second movement (as Mahler composed it and initially published the score) or after the falsely calm Andante as the third movement (as Mahler always performed it himself)? The other point that gets the Mahler-lover all excited is the question of whether to employ two or three ‘Hammer-blows’ in the finale. These crushing thumps (for which Mahler had a specially constructed device in mind) symbolizes (none too subtle at that) the ‘cutting down’, the felling of the symphony’s hero in midstride. Once – and he gets back up, marching on with determination. Twice – getting up, still… and seemingly overcoming adversity again. And then, the third blow falls, and this time for good – a final, fatal blow. Each one of these blows should go to the bone of the chilled listener. Mahler composed the third – but withdrew it before the first performance. Superstition – fear of its prophetic power? – is the often credited reason for that decision, at least by those who restore that awful, terrifying third blow.

The first controversy is somewhat muted by the programmability of our CD player but remains an important point in live performances (and presumably recordings of live performances). Abbado opts for “Mahler the Performer” and takes the Andante first. I myself am agnostic on the issue. Or rather: ignorant enough to side with whoever's good explanation for either choice I have heard most recently. If Abbado says "Andante first," then so be it.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, "Sir John"
When it comes to the hammer blows though, I am in the camp that demands three. I don’t find the effect cheap but overwhelming instead. The “superstition argument” strikes me as very plausible. After all, this concerns the man who even tried to avoid writing a 9th symphony – by wedging Das Lied between the 8th and "9th" – for fear of the precedence set by Beethoven, Dvořák, and Bruckner). The argument that the third blow should be “imagined” – expected but withheld – does not jive with me, either. Not only is it hard for me to imagine something so real and specific on the account of its absence, but the third blow itself does not come at the ‘expected’ time anyway. Rather, it is delayed by a few bars, opening hope for a few seconds that the pinnacle has been successfully passed after all… only to strike all the harder, more devastatingly into the hero’s neck when no longer expected. I get goosebumps just thinking about it… and am not wont to give it up in my ideal 6th.

Unfortunately – for me – Abbado does; dampening my excitement about this installment by a good margin. It isn’t for that reason, though, that I can’t warm up to this recording altogether. It’s too nice, not gripping enough; it tells a story, rather than living it. It is in complete (but not necessarily good) contrast to the foam-at-the-mouth Barbirolli 6th. The sound is good for a live recording, but too murky to enthuse; pianissimos too subtle to hear or notice in regular listening mode. To hear the final notes – plucked A’s in the strings – I had to put on headphones and crank the stereo all the way up. Winds and strings are often surprisingly indistinct from one another.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, HvK
I want to rave about Abbado’s Mahler, but this release does not give me much to play with in this issue. Perhaps the surround sound SACD, just issued, improves the matter, but I doubt anything will turn this into my favorite 6th, yet. (Apparently, the dynamic level is low on the SACD, too.) Maybe I am missing something here, as I've heard others love this recording, but I just don't know what it is. Those who don't like the rushing, unsubtle, and clipped Zander recording might find their match here. An Abbado fan won’t be talked out of this by my review (I could not even talk myself out of it), because the playing and the long lines are superb, anyway… but it’s certainly no first sixth and not altogether recommended.

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