This is not just another Mahler 6th. And this is no easy thing to say considering that the competition is fierce: Bernstein on Sony and DG, Barbirolli, Karajan, Solti, Tennstedt, Sanderling, Jansons/LSO, Abbado/BPO. So how is Currentzis different? This will come as a shock to some, but his orchestra actually sounds better than many world-renowned ensembles. To begin with, individually, the instrumental contributions are more characterful. This is no routine playing and the winds and brass in all movements are a testament to this. Not to mention the uniformity of the strings, here antiphonally placed, never excessive but still weighty and finely sculpted (in a way reminiscent of Karajan). But it’s not just all about great orchestral playing. Currentzis manages to bring out the musicality in a symphony where the term musicality doesn’t sound so apt.
To my ears, the shaping of the opening reminded me of Sanderling, whose recording has been considered the yardstick by many. The march has the extra bite needed that is missing in most recordings, the strings dark-hued. The depth of playing, the presence and execution of the snare drums make this a march that breathes with life, so much that when the exposition repeat arrives it sounds like fresh material. Not to mention the measured approach to the Alma theme, which here is emotional without being sentimental. And when the xylophone and glockenspiel enter towards the end of the movement you will be left wondering: has this passage ever sounded more dreamy? “A dreamy military march?” I hear you ask. Indeed. This is a first movement with the raw power of Barbirolli and the vision of Karajan. After all, Mahler himself commented on the middle-part cowbell section saying these are the “last earthly sounds heard from the valley below by the departing spirit on the mountain top”.
The Scherzo, placed 2nd, is equally, successful. How so? The altväterisch theme of the Trio has all the innocence one would expect (Alma described it as a game of children zig-zagging through the sand) but it is the Scherzo sections with the mocking brass that stand out. Conductor and orchestra make this movement sound more burlesque than menacing (compared to Solti for instance). The orchestral contributions from the woodwinds have a mature, ripe quality: kudos to the oboe which really has a very distinctive sound that fits the dark, comical character of the piece.
In the Andante Moderato all the boxes are ticked: Currentzis observes the sloping string glissandos (at 10:27 and 10:54) which are handled here with utmost care and which are missing from even some benchmark recordings. As mentioned above, the antiphonal string decks help the sound spread uniformly and their interplay is vividly caught across the soundstage (listen for example from 12:43 to 12:50). I’d like to put particular emphasis on the cowbells which are here realistically recorded. Once more I quote the composer, who specifically stated the cowbells “should be played with discretion—so as to produce a realistic impression of a grazing herd of cattle, coming from a distance…”. This might sound like a trivial observation but in some recordings, they are either swamped by the orchestra in certain loud passages (Solti) or they are too artificial-sounding to the point of not resembling the actual sound of cowbells (Chailly)—not to mention recordings where the cowbells are too congested (after all, Mahler said grazing cattle, not cattle fighting each other). It is indeed rare to hear the pastoral elements of the Andante brought out with such subtlety as in this recording. This is the beauty of nature filtered through the human senses and, as everything unattainable, it is inexorably linked to pain. And the current performance manages to capture a great deal of the fragile qualities of this relationship.
But for me, the highlight of the movement (and one of the highlights of this release) is how Currentzis treats the central climax and how, right after that, the second theme returns in full glory from the strings towards the end. He respects and brings out the humanity of the piece instead of lingering too much on the pathos in an almost clear, ascetic way. Very few performances succeed in offering such an honest account of the big theme in the Andante, Karajan and Herbig being among them.
Which brings us to the Finale, arguably the pinnacle of the symphony. Everything culminates here. And under Currentzis the level of detail is astonishing. The subdued crescendo at the beginning of the movement might initially worry some, but after a while one realises it matches Currentzis’s overall approach. It is no exaggeration to say that the way the conductor manages silence here—dare I say that Currentzis manages to sculpt silence?—is unique.
Sony Classical Album Preview
On the present release, the Finale sounds like music that at times seems to have emerged somewhere between the two Nachtmusik movements of the 7th and the subconscious world of lucid dreaming. The brass is sizzling, the string tremolandi often hold the tension mid-air, the triangle and cowbells here as if coming from a dark distance. The two hammer blows—here sounding “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe),” exactly like Mahler suggests—are followed by a manic accelerando right afterwards (other performances don’t resort to this frenzy which Currentzis holds under his control without getting carried away). And how gracefully the same theme slows down again when the harp and triangle enter. Of course, “gracefully” is an odd word to use for this movement, but in a way this is how Currentzis handles the finale.
In short, don’t expect Solti’s menacing timpani and driven tempos. This is a Finale where the pastoral element is evident (!) and parts of which seem to come from Mahler’s 5th and 7th symphonies (thus making the final movement, especially, sound like an arch between the two). And perhaps this finale makes one understand, better than any other recording that I know of, what Tom Service is referring to in his Guardian Symphony Guide when he says that “if you hear the piece, thinking only of the implacable darkness with which it ends, you miss the true drama, which is that a completely different emotional outcome is possible until the final few minutes. Everything is at stake right until the end of this music, and it’s the fact that this symphony consistently strives for a victory that it doesn’t ultimately win that makes it so emotionally devastating; in that sense, this symphony is the exact opposite of ‘nihilistic’.)”
The reader will notice that I haven’t mentioned any weaknesses and it turns out that one or two points that initially puzzled me, made complete sense only a few seconds later as the music progressed (in fact the opposite thing happened: after comparing multiple recordings, I noticed instead shortcomings with some of the “legendary” performances I used to cherish myself). And whilst in other performances one might expect to hear what the conductor is going to do with the louder parts, with Currentzis one is anticipating the quieter ones.
On a personal level, let’s just say that Currentzis’s interpretation is of such depth that it helped me re-appreciate this mighty symphony. The way he shapes the Andante and the Finale, in particular, bringing out the light and grace within this darkest work, made me realise that such revealing detail, without sacrificing the composer’s intentions, is what great interpretation in classical music is all about. Currentzis states in the booklet notes (at last a CD with original and illuminating insights on the work) that the finale offers a sort of catharsis and this is clear from his interpretation. Death does not come after the end of the 6th. I would extend this to add that a new world of possibilities begins. And perhaps new possibilities in music.
As mentioned earlier the MusicAeterna is a match to any world-class orchestra and surpasses most of them if we are to judge from the present recording. And speaking of recordings, as in Currentzis’s previous release of the Tchaikovsky 6th, the recorded sound here not only is state-of-the-art, but it also has the ideal reverb (this is one of the very best sounding Mahler recordings).
In the 6th I’d personally choose Solti or Karajan (two antithetical approaches), Bernstein for the sheer drama in the finale, Jansons for a more straightforward approach that still encompasses Mahler’s reality. But Currentzis has achieved here something unique that I never thought I would hear in this symphony. The musicality and radiance of this performance is unrivalled. I would dare say that this is a Mahler 6th for the ages which goes directly to the top of my list.
Rating: ***** (5/5 Gold)