One of the most fascinating happenings in classical music in the last 50 years has been the gradual rise in popularity of the composer Gustav Mahler. As late as the mid-twentieth century, he was regularly dismissed by critics as an extreme eccentric. But the visionary and intensely emotional qualities of Mahler’s works inspired the gradual but irresistible growth of a fanatically dedicated audience, to the point where now many of Mahler’s works are cornerstones of the repertory, both in concert and on disc.
Even more amazing is the popularity of the Symphony No. 6, nicknamed the “Tragic”. Though slow to catch on—its first American performance was in 1946, forty years after it was written—the 6th has become a favorite of many listeners, even to the point of showing up in commercials and films. At first glance, this work seems an unlikely candidate for such popularity. It is a maze of nightmarish visions, ultimately collapsing into darkness. But this work has many layers of appeal. For those who feel Mahler sometimes rambles, it stands as the composer’s most focused and classical work. For those who love Mahler’s cathartic intensity, the 6th plumbs emotional depths without fear or apology. On top of these is the dazzling way Mahler wrote for expanded orchestra, including such unexpected sounds as cowbells and a sledgehammer.
Mahler’s 6th was not recorded until the 1950’s, and there have been dozens of recordings since, by some of the greatest names in classical music. Any newcomer to this crowd needs to shine to grab one’s attention, and most recordings in the last decade have failed to do that. But Telarc’s recent release of a new recording by Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra is one to make Mahler lovers worldwide sit up and take notice. Zander is a conductor, educator, and speaker originally from England, but now based in Boston, where he founded the Boston Philharmonic. The audaciousness of forming an orchestra in a city dominated by the patrician Boston Symphony speaks volumes about Zander’s zeal and daring. He is also a beloved teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music. Furthermore, Zander often serves as a consultant to businesses, sharing with them the managerial and psychological insights to leadership that he has gathered in a lifetime of working with musicians and listeners. As his fame has grown, Zander has begun conducting some of the world’s major orchestras, and now in his sixties, Zander stands of the verge of becoming a classical music superstar. This new recording assures his status as one of the world’s foremost conductors.
Most performances of Mahler’s 6th fall into either the objective camp, or the subjective one. The objective performances are ones that emphasize the work’s connection to the traditional classical format. These tend to be the performances where the conductor plays down the extreme contrasts inherent in the score. Unfortunately, toning down the emotion of a piece whose raison d’etre is the expression of extreme emotion, fails to do justice to the work. The opposing school of thought, however, has a tendency to go off the meter in the other direction, often at the expense of Mahler’s carefully detailed score. Zander’s recording is welcome for uniting the objective and subjective approaches. There is an almost fanatical attention to detail, but, more importantly, there is a passionate commitment to making each detail a convincing part of the whole symphony’s emotional impact. Zander ranks alongside Leonard Bernstein and Klaus Tennstedt in terms of frenzy generated, while remaining truer to Mahler’s score than either. Bernstein may push the finale a little further in intensity, but Zander manages to be harrowing while holding the tempo changes more coherently together. In his broad tempo for the first movement, Zander stands comparison to the previous Philharmonia recording by Sinopoli, but whereas Sinopoli is analytical and icy in approach, Zander is full of fire, seeming faster, when he’s actually almost half a minute slower than Sinopoli. Zander’s broad tempo is sustained with such a sure hand, it holds its impressiveness even when compared against more traditionally brisk performances such as Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic or James Levine with the London Symphony. Throughout this performance, the Philharmonia plays with great beauty where appropriate, and great fierceness where needed. Thus, this performance is much more jagged than the atmospheric reading by Claudio Abbado and or the suave recording by Pierre Boulez. Yet it doesn’t go over the line into crudity, unlike some moments in the Tennstedt recording discussed above. On SACD, this disc’s main competitor is the impressive live recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. Impressive it is, but Zander trumps it on every count. Zander’s weightier and more visceral approach makes Tilson Thomas feel lightweight in contrast. The orchestras’ respective playing styles emphasize that impression. Even Tilson Thomas’ mighty hammer blows in the finale are surpassed in Zander’s. Also worth noting is that Zander includes two versions of the finale here: One is the standard version, but the other is the original version of the movement, including the third hammer blow, which Mahler later suppressed because the three hammer blows too clearly matched the series of catastrophes that befell him in the years immediately after he wrote the work. This original version also includes some slightly different orchestration near the end, compulsory listening for any Mahlerite.
This release marks a new milestone in the art of recording. It simply demolishes all competing recordings of Mahler’s 6th in terms of sonics. In this recording Telarc has captured a sound both red-blooded and gorgeously atmospheric. If the previous Zander/Philharmonia Telarc release on SACD (Mahler’s 5th) was a bit bass-shy, the new recording captures the voice of the orchestra like no other I’ve ever heard, from deep rumbling bass to crystalline highs. And comparison to Telarc SACD’s of the Atlanta Symphony makes one want to take up a collection to fly that orchestra over to England to be recorded in the Watford Colosseum. Telarc has been a noted audiophile company for over two decades now, but this disc is surely the finest recording they have yet produced. Dare I even say, this recording raises the bar for the whole classical recording industry.
It must also be mentioned that this release (like all of Zander’s Telarc releases) includes a bonus CD where the conductor discusses the work in great detail. Music lovers have not had so enthusiastic a guide into the mysterious world of classical music since the glory days of Leonard Bernstein. Zander has the gift for talking about music in ways that makes it more comprehensible to newcomers, without being condescending to well-seasoned listeners. After being swept along by his enthusiasm, you too may begin to wonder if Zander isn’t the next Bernstein.
In sum, this recording is quite simply the finest Mahler 6th, not only in terms of performance and recording, but also in terms of value: The symphony is spread over two discs (including the two finales) and there is also the aforementioned bonus disc. All this for the price of one SACD. Top disc of the year 2002, bar none.