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Mahler: Symphony No. 6 - Nott

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 - Nott

Tudor  SACD 7191

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Mahler: Symphony No. 6

Bamberger Symphoniker
Jonathan Nott

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Review by John Miller - October 4, 2013

Before listening to Nott's Sixth I listened to various SA-CD versions of the symphony My ears were left ringing with Abbado's visionary Lucerne Festival performance. Nott's Mahler cycle with the Bamburg Symphony Orchestra is, at the time of writing, close to conclusion, the Sixth having been captured between 27th and 31st October, 2008. For all orchestras and conductors it poses many problems, with its unusual reversion to classical forms, requirements for a huge orchestra and deep philosophical expression. It is without doubt an expression of Mahler's soul at a difficult period of his life.

In the liner notes, Nott offers some new clues about Mahler's intentions in the Sixth. They concern his observation that Mahler prominently uses in his first movement a descending theme from the Adagio second movement of Liszt's First Piano Concerto, which Liszt transformed in the last movement of the concerto into a brash marcato fanfare scored for three trombones: something beautiful turned destructive. Mahler quotes it (at first in the minor), also on trombone, early in the Sixth's first movement, and it becomes as important as the first subject. In the Coda, it moves into the major and opposes the so-called "Alma" theme which forms the second subject.

Furthermore, Nott tells us that the Andante movement of the Sixth opens with a virtually exact inversion of the Liszt theme, reminding us that other such thematic inversions are used elsewhere by Mahler but only within movements. Nott goes on to say that the clear linking of the Andante with the terse material of the first movement is unique in Mahler's symphonies, and suggests that the composer put greater store in the Andante than is generally realised.

Nott also points out that there are other significant quotations in Mahler symphonies, citing the famous posthorn solo in the Third Symphony as identical to a theme in Liszt's 'Rhapsodie espagnole'. However, he is unable to give evidence for any secret affinities which Mahler might have had had for Liszt's musical ideals (Mahler wrote vehemently about Liszt's advocacy of "programme" music). Intriguing as all this new information is, Nott isn't able to discern its meaning. It seems to me that since it can hardly make much, if any, contribution to interpreting the Sixth symphony in performance, and thus remains in the realm of musicologists and Mahler experts.

Turning now to the Bamburger's new issue, it is a single disc version (80:34), faster overall than many recordings by conductors of the previous generation but more or less in line with recent offerings. There are several items in this symphony which are controversial. First, the opening movement is in quite strict classical sonata form (which Mahler used only in one earlier symphony), right down to a traditional exposition repeat. The repeat, of course, determines the timing of the first movement, so beware when making comparisons. Benjamin Zander, George Szell and Günther Herbig, for example, omit the repeat. Most modern conductors (including Nott), however, take the repeat, which not only reinforces for the listener material which links into later movements, but is also important in balancing the unusually long finale of the Sixth.

The most heated controversy iconcerns the playing order of the symphony's middle movements. Mahler was indecisive, his first thought being a scherzo-andante order, but he later changed his mind at concerts, opting for andante-scherzo. This remained the commonest performance order until 1963. Preparing a great Mahler Festival at Amsterdam, the conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Willem Mengelberg, sent a telegram to Mahler's widow Alma, querying the order of the inner movements. Her reply was categorical: 'Erst Scherzo, dann Andante' ('First Scherzo, then Andante'). This was reflected in the International Mahler Society's edition of the symphonies. It was declared that Mahler's final wish had been that the correct order of the inner movements should be as he originally planned. These days, conductors (including Nott) mostly adhere to that edition, although there is a significant list of conductors who prefer andante-scherzo order. Nott's liner note explains his reasons for his choice, based on maintaining the structural arch which Mahler had originally planned.

The final headache for conductors is matter of hammer blows in the last movement of the Sixth. Alma Mahler’s memoirs relate that her husband said that the Finale concerns a hero “on whom falls three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.” These three blows are sounded by a “hammer” that he described in a score footnote as being “short, mighty but dull in resonance, with a non-metallic character.” Alma also wrote: “The notes of the bass drum . . . were not loud enough for him; so he had an enormous chest made and stretched with hide. It was to be beaten with clubs.” She didn't relate that the Essen orchestra was making fun of Mahler in rehearsals, as he was searching for the desired sound, even taking a few whacks himself. The contraption was not used in the concert.

Listening to a range of recorded finales of the Sixth, it is clear that finding the sound that Mahler specified is still problematic. In many cases, the hammer sound is so feeble that listeners who are not following a score could easily miss it. The most arresting sound I have heard is from Abbado's Lucerne concert (in its BluRay incarnation), where a percussionist raises high a long-handled sledgehammer, smashing it down on what looks like a wooden crate for transportation of tympani, giving a shocking thud which raises hair on the back of one's neck. The Bamburger's hammer blows, from an unrevealed mechanism, are more on the feeble side, but the second blow is notably louder than the first.

The hammer question carries a further complication: how many blows? Alma Mahler said of her husband that “...He anticipated his own life in music. On him fell three blows of fate, and the last felled him.” This portrays Mahler as able to foresee in 1903-1905 (when the Sixth was written) that in 1907 these three blows would represent three real-life misfortunes. Indeed, Mahler’s 5 year old daughter Maria died, his tumultuous directorship of the Vienna Court Opera came to an end, and his not-yet-fatal heart disease was first diagnosed. In fact, there were no hammer blows in his autograph score. Three of them were added in blue pencil during preparations for the Essen première concert. Two more clear "blows" were not specifically labelled "hammer", and these were deleted before the performance, as was the final blow. I suspect that, rather than being predictive of his fate, Mahler realised that he didn't have to over-interrupt the dramatic arc of the finale for his listeners. Some conductors, however, reinstate the final blow, for example Bernstein, but Nott has only two hammer blows.

Complications of performance administration apart, how do Nott and his Bamburg orchestra fare with the Sixth? Once again, Tudor's recording of one of the finest German orchestras in its home venue has a clear focus, a sound-stage which is both wide and deep, and makes the most of divided violins in Mahler's contrapuntal textures. It also provides a clean capture of this symphony's characteristic dense sonorities of basses, tuba, bass tuba, bass trombone, bass clarinet and double bassoon. Every instrument in the large percussion department is displayed to its best advantage, from the high-quality bass drum and tam-tam to the innovatory rhythmic tapping of the rute (a bunch of birch twigs).

Nott's clear perception of Mahler's carefully designed structural arch is evident from the first few bars, picking up and carrying the listener along its inspired path. Mahler's grim first movement march, forming the first subject, is vehemently obsessional as the composer required, perhaps a parody of the marches Mahler heard as a child, from the barracks just over his parent's garden wall. Never flagging, Nott persuades the Bamberg brass and wind into truly capturing Mahler's cynicism, manifested in sneering, grotesque playing techniques, which suit the movement's mood perfectly. The so-called "Alma" theme, as second subject, casts doubt on Alma's insistence that it represents Mahler's portrait of her. But it isn't flattering; more ostentatious, smug and complacent - and the nature of this "portrait" upset Bruno Walter, who mostly avoided the Sixth because of it. Alma, in any case, was often unreliable in her memoirs, and wasn't above putting words into her husband's mouth, as it were.

Nott's profoundly unstable Scherzo is syncopated and tautly rhythmic, combining a Ländler with a march and creating an overall sense of grotesque turmoil. Howling horns, dropping down from appoggiaturas, sound as though they are in real physical distress. Tubas are flatulent and cynical, brass muted and harsh-toned. Even the calmer rustic interludes, with distant cowbells, have an uneasy, perhaps sinister air. Switching between the blustering scherzo sections and cavalier interruptions of the calm Wunderhorn atmosphere in the interludes catches out many conductors, but Nott and his orchestra manage to do it convincingly. As an aside, Alma described a particular sequence in this wild scherzo as representing the tottering of her two little girls over the sand while the Mahler's holidayed. Apart being a nonsensical interpretation of this arrhythmic sequence in its stormy context, it cannot be true as their youngest daughter was only a month old at the time referred to.

The Andante is the beating heart of this symphony, and Nott makes the most of his sense that it was very important for Mahler - inverted Lisztian as its first subject might be. The lovely string melody is played with great simplicity and grace, in a Kindertotenlieder atmosphere which tugs at the heart-strings. Singing itself out, the melody burgeons into an anguished outburst, an expression of unfathomable grief, deeply affecting.

Despite their rather feeble hammer strokes, the Bamburgers make the Finale a tour de force of orchestral brilliance, revelling in Mahler's astonishingly modern and complex polyphonic writing. The joking and ironic comment of previous movements stops here. Carefully forging links between itself and other movements, its restless disorder is inexorable. The opening Sostenuto (other-wordly, almost cosmic in its masterly scoring) is repeated close to the punctuating hammer and tam-tam crashes which temporarily halt the movement's whirling energy. The returning interludes of achingly reminiscing country Ländler are seeded in the Finale with glorious crystalline tinkling effects scored for celestes, harps, distant cowbells and violin harmonics, suggesting starry evenings on mountain pastures. Mahler is finally exhausted by a particularly brazen climax; then the bass tuba and other deep bass instruments quietly intone a solemn chorale-like coda, patently expressing fatal pessimism. And the Sixth's grandiose nihilistic statement is finally blown away by a final, sharp loud chord which dwindles to nothing. Beautifully done by the Bambergers.

As usual, Tudor's presentation is exemplary, with the case cover aptly showing one of Klimt's gloomiest and threatening paintings. In the liner text, as well as Nott's discussion (illustrated by music examples) dealt with above, there are extensive notes on each movement. All texts are repeated in French, English and German.

I found that Nott's reading and the devoted orchestral playing revealed a powerful, insightful and penetrating Sixth. For me, ithis performance is another highlight of the Bamberg Mahler cycle, to put alongside particular successes of the Third, Fourth, Seventh and Ninth symphonies. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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