G. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, C. Abbado / BPh
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.
G. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, B. Zander
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.
G. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, "Sir John"
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.
G. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, HvK