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Mahler, Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"

available at AmazonG.Mahler, Symphony No.2,
Michael Tilson Thomas / San Francisco SO
Isabel Bayrakdarian, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson
SFS Media 82193600062

It may be coincidence that my Mahler collection contains more Mahler 2nd symphonies than any other. It may also be coincidence that that symphony seems to have been particularly well served by the recording industry, but its popularity is certainly no coincidence. It combines all the elements that make Mahler's symphonies great. It is typical of his work, yet accessible, imposing; has folk influences, mystic gravity; it has voice solos and a choir; it isn't as over-the-top as the garishly divine Eighth nor as forbidding as the Seventh, more varied than the First or Fifth.

I have not yet heard a bad recording of it, either. "One-piece-conductor" Gilbert Kaplan brings raw excitement to it in his LSO recording (Conifer—sadly no longer with the lavish presentation but with better sound and at mid-price); in his second recording (of the newly edited score) with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG) he achieves perfect sound and great polish. Simon Rattle (EMI) presents the Birmingham SO at its best and is blessed with Arleen Auger and Janet Baker as the soloists. Claudio Abbado's first two recordings (Chicago, Berlin, DG) were splendid, and his third (Lucerne, DG—see ionarts review) tops both for capturing the excitement of the live performance. Bruno Walter (Sony) brings his intimate knowledge of Mahler to his recording, and Seiji Ozawa has the most electrifying version in his all-Japanese recording with the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Sony). Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic (DG) is broader but still heart-on-sleeve his second time around with that band, and perhaps it is because of this competition that Otto Klemperer's seminal version with Schwartzkopf and Rössl-Majdan (EMI) is a bit disappointing upon revisiting it. Add to these (and several more) the latest installment of Michael Tilson Thomas's Mahler cycle with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on their own label. His soloists are Isabel Bayrakdarian (soprano) and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo soprano), and the recording enters the catalogue as a success.

I have to note that I did not yet have a chance to listen to the recording in SACD surround sound, clearly an essential part of the issue's attraction (limiting the direct competition in the field to Messrs. Zander and Kaplan II.) But the performance itself is worth a review.

Hunt Lieberson has become one of the greatest mezzos over the course of the last six years, and yet somehow did so overnight. Her Bach and Handel recordings showcase her rich voice, casting hues that many other singers should envy, if they don't already. At the same time, her natural and honest tone is perfectly suited to Urlicht ("Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht"—Very solemn, but simple/plain). It is worth noting that that simplicity and naturalness in the "Primal Light" fourth movement come out of a score where the first 35 bars witness no fewer than 21 changes of meter.

MTT's take on this symphony, recorded live in June 2004, feels elastic, lithe (but not light), sometimes tip-toeing, sometimes smashing with all the requisite weight into the sea of music. There is freshness to how he bursts into the finale, and the brass are well captured, in tune, and never brash or blazing. The soundstage is closer than in Kaplan's recording, where the distant horns, in their attempt to attain maximum effect and authenticity, border on the gimmicky. In stereo, the orchestra is well balanced.

The two-disc set splits the symphony after the first movement (23:19), giving each listener who should be so inclined the chance to observe the Mahler-mandated five-minute break before resuming with the next three movements before the finale. The choral entry in that 5th movement is sufficiently hushed but maybe not the most impressive. But the SFSO, by now well versed in Mahler, picks it up wonderfully, transporting the movement to a plane where Mme. Bayrakdarian enters with her soft voice at maximum vibrato. MTT gathers the fine momentum for the last five minutes and brings the symphony to a rousing finish.

While final thoughts carry with them the caveat of not having been able to experience and compare the SACD sound, this second symphony is a strong contender in a strong field. A perfectly fine account for anyone looking for a first Mahler 2nd, but not the only one to have and not an unambiguous first choice. Ozawa and Abbado III (especially if the latter ever comes out as an SACD) ought not to be missed, and I'll probably turn to Rattle (sadly overpriced as it is) just as often. For those who have followed MTT it might be a must-have, although a friend and Hi-Fi "Mahlerinarian" whom I trust told me rather unflattering things about the surround sound, denting its chances to become the High-Fidelity listener's favorite.

See also ionarts' Mahler Survey

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