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Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.6 (Part 1)

Continued here: "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.6 (Part 2)"

The Sixth Symphony is often mentioned to be Mahler’s most classical, invariably followed by the qualification: “If only in structure”. It’s an important qualification, because although cast in the sonata-form of the classical symphony (replete with repeats, Allegro first movement, inner movements in Scherzo- and slow-form, and an Allegro moderato—Allegro energico Finale), the symphony has nothing else in common with the classical predecessors. For one, its individual movements are as long or longer than any one of Haydn’s complete symphonies. The musical language is Mahler at his most romantic, too. His symphonies are generally not of the happy, cheery kind—but at least they occasionally end on a note (or the hope) of optimism. Not so the Sixth. It’s brutal, relentless, remorseless—and although it can be tamed to sound beautiful, the this symphony simply seems to demand to be ridden as hard as possible; foam at the mouth, wide-eyed, driven to the brink of the abyss. If the Sixth Symphony were a politician, it would promise nothing but
blood, toils, tears, and sweat.

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G.Mahler, Symphony No.6,

There are two choices to be made in the performance of this work and they are, among Mahler-geeks, perennially controversial: Is the Scherzo to be taken before the Andante (the order it was composed in) or the Andante before the Scherzo (as Mahler always had it performed; perhaps because the criticism that the Scherzo and the first movement were too similar, struck a chord with him)? And is the third hammer-blow that Mahler originally composed to be included or is the symphony to be played in the version where Mahler afterwards composed around it? It’s a tedious argument, usually, and suffice it to say that every outstanding performance allows you to neglect the matter, even if you do have set preferences. Mine, incidentally, favor Scherzo-first and three hammer-blows, for the much improved dramatic structure of the work: A one-two punch in the kisser; the Adagio to lull you into a sense of security—and then crushing the spirit with that harrowing Finale. The Scherzo, yes, is similar to the opening movement, but that is not inherently undesirable. But the way the Scherzo, when placed before the Finale, zaps the latter of its energy, I find most undesirable, indeed. (This is a highly subjective, instinctive choice on my part and I acknowledge that good arguments can be had for an opposing view.)

Still, I am inclined to separate between Mahler “the composer” and Mahler “the conductor” who was willing to engage in just about any compromise to get his works performed. Including moving the Scherzo—’being too similar to the opening movement’—behind the Andante even as the harmonic progression could be argued to suggest the order of Scherzo-Andante.) The latest decision of the International Gustav Mahler Society reverses its course and now places the slow movement before the Scherzo with an air of unassailable certainty. What can be said with certainty is that Mahler did not mind the order A-S at all and, pace Henri-Louis de La Grange, seems to have had no second thoughts about it after the final decision in favor of A-S at the premiere in Essen.

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M6, J.Barbirolli / New Philharmonia

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Rouge & Noire
US | UK | DE | FR

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M6, P.Boulez / WPh

UK | DE | FR

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M6, D.Mitropoulos / WDR SO

UK | DE | FR

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M6, M.Gielen / SWR SO BB/F

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M6, C.Eschenbach / Philadelphia

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I divide recordings of the Sixth into those that make it sweat blood and those that play it ‘beautifully’. Both approaches have their merit and in the Sixth more-so even than the Seventh (where you can juxtapose a wafting, misty reading—Abbado II, any Bernstein—against ‘lean riders’—Boulez, Kubelik) it warrants recommending versions for either approach.

Like a possessed Bulldog, drooling over the orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli drives the New Philharmonia to a performance somewhat the polar opposite of other Barbirolli Mahler-recordings. The sound quality is not the best (but has been improved significantly for all subsequent re-issues on CD, starting with the double forte edition) and you can hear Barbirolli grunt, huff, and puff—but that all sounds appropriate, as does the less-than-perfect playing of the orchestra. It is wild-eyed, relentless; its teeth are showing. The first movement drags cruelly but appropriately to these ears, because the attacks are sharp and on the toes, not the heal. The repeat is skipped.

This recording has thankfully been re-issued again—now with Barbirolli’s preferred, original movement order, with the Andante first. (On previous issues, the engineers had other ideas and placed the Scherzo first, in accordance with the critical Mahler Edition’s suggestions at the time. It works to riveting effect, which somewhat excuses their interference with the maestro’s wishes.)

Barbirolli and Bernstein’s view of this symphony were very likely influenced by the greatest Mahlerian since Mengelberg and Walter, and by far the most exciting next to Bernstein: Dimitri Mitropoulos. Mitropoulos gave the first American performances of the Sixth (Andante/Scherzo) in 1947. A recording from 1955 (also Andante/Scherzo) with the New York forces is floating around (notably in the New York Philharmonic $200-plus luxury box set) and is said to be played better—but the live-recording with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln from 1959 (at time when “live” meant live!) is riveting, raw, individualistic (still shy of eccentric); truly an edge-of-the-seat reading. (Issued on the Mitropoulos set as part of EMI’s prematurely aborted “Greatest Conductors of the 20th Century” edition, it is easily available and inexpensive.) That the orchestra struggles in several passages can be troubling—or alternatively seen as furthering that pushed-to-the-brink feeling.

The order of the movement is Scherzo/Andante and that’s how it has been published in all its outings on CD… Mitropoulos curiously having changed the movement-order four years prior to the International Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft’s critical edition suggesting the Scherzo be placed first. (Most likely Erwin Ratz, founder and editor of the IGMG, and the irrationally ardent supporter of the Scherzo-Andante order mentioned above, had convinced him to do so before a performance in Vienna in 1957.) The sound is admittedly rather limited for most of the first movement but it gets better from thereon… and the rest of the modest quality is adjusted for by the ears. Not a ‘first’ recommendation but a dedicated Mahler listener or any fan of the Sixth won’t pass it up. This recording, unlike some other old and low-fi recordings I have criticized, is one where you definitely can hear and enjoy the interpretive choices.

Boulez (DG) has a very strong Sixth to offer—and while it is not quite as no-holds-barred rough and raw as Bernstein, Mitropoulos, or Barbirolli (the Vienna Philharmonic plays far too beautifully for that), he might still be considered to fall down on the ‘brutal’ side. It’s a tremendous recording and would probably—despite the polarizing effect the name “Boulez” has on Mahlerites or music fans in general—be the least controversial first choice for the Sixth. (To eradicate the “cold” stereotype that so disturbs sensible discussion of Boulez’ conducting: clear and clean he is always and ‘analytical’ often; but a sense of detachment only appears in his Mahler Third and Seventh. Blind hearings would surely show him ranked as surprisingly emotive!) Continue...

The font used in the title is "P22 Vienna Regular"

Find a list of the ex-WETA Mahler Posts here:

Discographies on ionarts: Bach Organ Cycles | Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycles I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX | Beethoven Symphony Cycles Index | Beethoven String Quartet Cycles | Bruckner Symphony Cycles | Dvořák Symphony Cycles | Shostakovich Symphony Cycles | Shostakovich String Quartet Cycles | Sibelius Symphony Cycles | Mozart Keyboard Sonata Cycles | Vaughan Williams Symphony Cycles

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