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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Barbirolli’s most interesting Mahler recording.
The Sixth Symphony is Mahler’s most classical, if only in structure. That’s an important qualification. Certainly it’s 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. That aside, the symphony has little in common with its classical predecessors. For one, its individual movements are as long as or longer than any one of Haydn’s complete symphonies.
Mahler’s 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 and made to sound beautiful, the most appropriate way to perform this symphony is by riding the beast 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.
And yet, for all the work’s grim grit, not every conductor chooses to whip it to create a rough frenzy … which is why I divide recordings of the Sixth into those that make it sweat blood and those that play it ‘beautifully‘. Try Ivan Fischer’s recording on Challenge Classics for the latter type of reading. Both approaches have their merit and in the Sixth it warrants recommending versions for either approach. That’s even more so than the Seventh where you can juxtapose a wafting, misty reading – Abbado II, any Bernstein – against ‘lean riders‘ à la Boulez, Kubelik. Despite slow tempos, Barbirolli squarely falls into the former – wild-eyed – category.
This Sixth is long overdue inclusion in the “Great Recordings of the Century” catalog – because despite its varied initial critical reception, it’s Barbirolli’s most interesting Mahler recording. Its absence from the catalog or any Mahler aficionado’s collection would be a much greater loss than were Barbirolli’s Ninth or Fifth to go missing.
In this coupling with a fitting and gorgeous Strauss Metamorphosen it has previously been available on an EMI Rouge et Noire disc, back then still with the movement order reversed to reflect the scholarship at the time: Scherzo first, Andante second. It works to riveting effect, which somewhat excuses the audio engineers’ interference with the maestro’s wishes. That wasn’t how Barbirolli recorded it or wanted it, and his wishes have been taken into consideration since the re-issue of the Mahler (coupled with Ein Heldenleben) on the double forte and then the Gemini series (review 1)(review 2).
Because I am too lazy to program my CD player to switch the movement order back, I have burnt myself a copy of the second CD that puts the Scherzo first. Mahler’s and Barbirolli’s wishes notwithstanding, the Scherzo second makes a lot more sense to my ears and Barbirolli’s interpretation is, ironically, the quintessential “Scherzo-Andante type”. Barbirolli is solidly in the “grit” camp – an impression that is heightened in its relentlessness when the onslaught of the Scherzo follows immediately and mercilessly after the opening Allegro, rather than having energy zapped by taming matters with the intermittent Andante.
Like a possessed Bulldog, drooling over the orchestra, Sir John drives the New Philharmonia to a performance the polar opposite of the other Barbirolli Mahler-recordings on EMI. The sound quality was not terribly good on the Rouge et Noire release but thanks to the 2002 re-mastering job has improved notably in the subsequent re-releases on CD. Fortunately you can hear Barbirolli grunt, huff, and puff – because that all sounds appropriate in this performance, 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. The repeat is skipped, perhaps the sole hair in the soup of this performance.
Unlike other slow and even many quicker performances, it never loses momentum or sight of the longer lines. Barbirolli unfailingly holds the tension – even as the symphony hovers beautifully in the Andante. It’s closest in vein to Dimitri Mitropoulos’s live-recording with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln from 1959 - at a time when “live” meant live! The Mitropoulos is riveting, raw, individualistic yet still shy of eccentric; truly an edge-of-the-seat reading. There are not all that many recordings of this symphony that are truly satisfactory. This is not only among them - Zander, Mitropoulos, Gielen, Eschenbach, Fischer are, too - it’s one of the finest available.
-- Jens F Laurson, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 6 in A minor "Tragic" by Gustav Mahler
Sir John Barbirolli
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Written: 1904/1906; Austria
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
For mature audiences only September 15, 2013
By Robin Mitchell (Philadelphia, PA) See All My Reviews
"If you want a quick assessment of this recording, please jump to paragraph 5, but even then my take wont be quickly digestible. I hate this music and I hate Mahler for having composed it, but in the same sense that I hate Shakespeare for having written Lear. It is said that Klaus Tennstedt, perhaps one of the later few conductors whose heart measured up to Barbirollis, told the LPO, when they began the rehearsals for their (neglected) recording of the 6th, to play the piece as if they loathed it. Recordings never really work for this symphony in particular because the physical violence inherent in the orchestration requires that the listener be sitting in the same room as an actual, live orchestra to have the PHYSICAL effect on the audience that Mahler intended. I have heard this work performed in five cities on two continents, and by far the most effective and affective performance was with Tennstedt, in Philadelphia, in the early 1990s, just after his hip replacement surgery. He started out using a stool for support, but in the middle of the first movement, violently hurled the stool off the podium as an affront to the force of the musics radical divinity. It was the most emotionally raw of any Mahler performance I have ever heard. The audience at the end sat stunned, gradually gathering itself, as Tennstedt recovered himself at each recall, finally holding Mahlers score triumphantly in the air at his last return to the stage. By far the worst performance live I have heard was at Tanglewood in 2008 (2009?), with Levine. He sat in his swivel chair, head down in the score, not communicating with anyone directly. The orchestra was magnificent, but with absolutely zero genuine impact on anyone. Levine, skating over the musics substance, elicited an excited woooohhhh from a member of the audience at the end of the first movement. Indeed. Levine laughed.Zero sense of line, architecture, development or tension. I had heard a younger Levine rehearse this piece successfully and insightfully at Curtis, and was stunned at how stunted the BSO take was both musically and emotionally. I had been expecting to hear a great orchestra under Levine present an architectural reading (a la Haitink) that would be both musically and emotionally satisfying. Alas, because the former was wanting, the latter was as well. Balancing the emotional and purely musical demands of this piece is the tightrope every conductor walks. Despite this musics Romantic, if not tragic, expression, it remains Mahlers most purely classical symphony. Aristotles analysis of Greek tragic drama argued that the author must feel his subject matter AND have sufficient technical mastery of his art form; the greatest emotional impact, he argued, results from the most effective deployment and manipulation of artistic form, not from simply emoting. Bernstein (whose Mahler I generally do not like) has, in one of his videos, a great parody of people who think Tchaikovksy simply sat down at the piano and emoted the first phrase of the last movement of the Pathetique. That said and, believe it or not I am getting to the recording at hand there are a wide possible range of successful takes on this symphony. I have generally preferred more architectural, classical readings of this score, having learned it on Haitinks first recording with the Concertgebouw. Funny enough, this sort of performance tends (but not invariably) to have, for the fiscally challenged, the benefit of fitting on a single disc. Woe to those whose tempos sprawl, as in the rendition by my hometown band, the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose recording under Eschenbach has such extraordinarily beautiful moments, yet whose lack of a sense of structure simply undermines its total impact; it sprawls, without coincidence, to two CDs. While the lack of unlimited resources have prevented me from hearing Haitinks Chicago performance, or, for that matter, Tilson Thomas 2011 recording (made just after the Towers fell, and, I have enormous admiration for his Mahler, having heard the 2nd and 5th in Philadelphia), my benchmark is Abbados Berlin recording, which combines a rigorous concern for the musics structure with a subtle, yet terrifying, emotional undertow. There are dutiful haters of Abbados Mahler; they want him to club us into submission like Bernstein, so fussy and overly concerned with detail in his VPO take. Those critics often make the accusation of Abbado prettifying this piece, and yet no musician interested in mere surface would, so late in his performing career, decide to reverse the order of the inner movements to their less pretty (and, I think, correct) order. The Berlin recording, made a few years after the nadir of his illness, has just enough hints that he has been to places where I really dont want to go. Excellent sound (interesting that this is one of the few DG recordings also available SACD now) and, at this point, finally, an orchestra who will go with him to those darker places. The darker places dominate, if not overwhelm, Barbirollis vision of the 6th, and its execution. This should not be anyones first recording of the 6th, nor second, nor perhaps even third. But it belongs in the collection of any serious Mahlerian, because, my Lord, it is magnificent, even though I often feel Barbirolli is working against Mahlers intentions, especially in his tempos, which are often extremely slow, particularly in the outer movements, which often undercut the sense of heroic struggle that Mahler seems to have intended (on this front see Tony Dugans perceptive comments in his survey at Music Web, even if, at times, I strongly disagree with his comments on specific recordings). That said, the tempos are often freely adjusted within the movements, and I am at times reminded of Furtwanglers observation about Beethoven that what matters is not individual tempos but tempo relationships. Thus, when Barbirolli does decide to accelerate suddenly, as in at roughly 12:30 into the second movement Andante, he maximizes the effect of that particular moment. I am still making up my mind about some eccentricities such as the overly long pause before the final Allegro section in the finale, which is then followed by, strangely enough, one of the fastest final sections I know, not to mention a final hammer blow that sounds like a small nuclear bomb exploding. You should know the piece before you hear this recording, but please dont overanalyze while hearing it for the first time. Barbirollis interpretive choices placed enormous demands on the New Philharmonia of the mid 1960s and too often their spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Yes, their passion is palpable, but in this work, as in Das Lied von der Erde, the pain inherent in extraordinary tonal beauty is part of the point. Barbirolli did not conduct Mahler until well into middle age, during a century that provided more than enough life experiences to a musical profession that was less sheltered than today, and during an era when conducting this music was not a career strategy. How anybody deals with this music from the podium before they are 50 escapes me. And so, I hate you Gustav Mahler. I hate you John Barbirolli. And God bless you both. And, yes, there is another piece on the set of 2 CDs, Strauss Metamorphosen, and I am almost ashamed to seem to treat it as an afterthought here. But I do need to think more about this piece and this recording of it, so the following is very preliminary. Metamorphosen is one of the few works by Strauss wherein he drops the ironic mask. An Alpine Symphony, in some places, is another. These two, not coincidentally, are, I think, his two most important orchestral compositions. With the former, the impetus was his sincere grief over Mahlers death, with the latter, the excessive bombing of Dresden, mainly by the British, in response to the inhumane bombing of London, and Strauss general despair over the destruction (mainly through suicide) of the Germanic culture that was the air he breathed. It is thus a somewhat startling realization for me that this recording is one of the of the very few, perhaps the only one, that I would rank in the same breath as Kempes with Dresden. Many of Kempes musicians would have lived through the bombing of their home, and many of Barbirollis certainly experienced the attacks on London (and, who knows, maybe some participated in the attacks on each others cities). Metamorphosen has not been recorded very much, perhaps because of the complexities of the circumstances of its creation, and because it is not an orchestral showpiece. Indeed, the palpable sense of desolation in the reduced string groups is key to the works effect. It is thus an interesting (to say the least) insight to Herbert von Karajan, twice a willing member of the Nazi party, that he tried to elide or erase this desolation by using a full complement of strings, essentially trying to make this another sonic spectacular, which is just so completely and utterly wrong."