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Mahler: Symphony No 2 / Eschenbach, Philadelphia Orchestra

Release Date: 01/27/2009 
Label:  Ondine   Catalog #: 1134   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Simona SaturováYvonne Naef
Conductor:  Christoph Eschenbach
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philadelphia OrchestraPhiladelphia Singers
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 28 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” Christoph Eschenbach, cond; Simona Šaturová (sop); Yvonne Naef (mez); Philadelphia Singers Chorale (David Hayes, dir); Philadelphia O ONDINE 1134 (2 CDs: 87:31) Live: Philadelphia 5/2007

Andrew Quint, in his review of Christoph Eschenbach’s Mahler Sixth (30:4), anticipated with regret Eschenbach’s departure from Philadelphia as music director; that loss will be more keenly felt Read more with the release of this important new Mahler Second, a fitting valedictory (if such it remains) recalling Mahler’s own leave-taking from Vienna.

Eschenbach observes Mahler’s string seating plan that projects both power (basses to the left rear) and balance (antiphonal violins), and the sound production complements it with plenty of depth and detail across the entire soundstage. In the first movement, Eschenbach establishes the maestoso of the tempo marking and offers a slight ritard for the entry of the lyric element, loosening the tension only to ratchet it back up as the obsequies resume. As the development opens, the peaceful calm of the pastoral theme is communicated through the sensitivity of the orchestral playing and the expansive tempo. Eschenbach’s exploitation of dynamics is masterful—shadings of volume complement the evolving dramatic soundscape just as much as the fluid tempo changes. In the later development, the effect of “striking with the bow,” too often obscured in the dense orchestration, is here chillingly audible. In the recapitulation, the pastoral theme is truly transformed in its final ethereal iteration, as it brings a poignant reminder of the heart of the movement—just before the listener is plunged down into the abyss; the coda is harrowing indeed, as it decisively nails the coffin shut.

Eschenbach’s tempo for the second movement stresses the moderato of the marking, while the elegance of this dance music is brought to the fore; we are worlds away from the stresses of the first movement. The troubling element that increasingly interrupts the steady grace of the dance is simply an austere reminder of the mundane rather than an echo of the terror of the earlier music. The Philadelphia strings are superb here—the pizzicato element surely evokes New Year’s in Vienna.

The sound production enhances the humorously menacing opening of the Scherzo, while the winds mimic both the sermon and its audience; where the Andante is all grace, this movement is a grotesque caricature of a dance. The brass chorale at midpoint suddenly thrusts the listener into the world of the finale (as does the later, violent eruption), but Eschenbach skillfully integrates that seeming anomaly into the proceedings, while the lovely Trio that follows is warm and lyrical.

How strange, it always seems to me, that Mahler called for a pause of at least five minutes between the first two movements, reasoning that the second movement would seem “irrelevant” without such a respite, and yet directs that the last three movements, arguably even more disparate, follow each other attacca ! Eschenbach sets a stately pace for “Urlicht,” but Yvonne Naef copes without audible strain, and her command of the text and the conviction of her performance are exemplary.

The finale opens in commanding fashion: Eschenbach directs a musical (as distinct from simply noisy) entrance, grabbing the listener’s attention rather than pummeling him into submission, which clearly harkens back to the same point in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The off-stage effects work well, establishing the depth of the sound-image early on. Eschenbach’s is a truly majestic finale: at just over 37 minutes, it rivals late Bernstein for length. But obviously it’s the actual performance rather than its length that matters, and the mastery of this one is evident throughout. The massive percussion crescendo that summons the sinners to judgment is stunning in this version. The orchestra beseeches the listener with steadily increasing emotion to the theme that will become “O glaube” as the offstage band marches by, oblivious to the onstage plea.

The “Great Call” sounds from the far distance, as though from on high, almost forcing the attention heavenward, while the offstage fanfares and onstage birdcalls add to the heightened sense of anticipation. The chorus’s muted entry is almost primeval, music and text made one, and Simona Šaturová’s pure tone soars over the massed voices. Naef copes effortlessly with the very measured tempo of “O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube,” and the two soloists are entirely convincing in this and their later duet. The final “Aufersteh’n” is literally awesome as voices, orchestra, and organ merge to overwhelming effect. The audience erupts immediately after the last notes sound, and the ovation is cathartic and deserved.

It only remains for me to say that this is a first-rate performance and recording of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, easily out-classing most of the recent additions to the catalog. Only those listeners demanding surround sound may be disappointed; the rest of us will find ample compensation in this splendid issue from Ondine. I place it alongside Tilson Thomas as among my highest recommendations in any medium.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 2 in C minor "Resurrection" by Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Simona Saturová (Soprano), Yvonne Naef (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Christoph Eschenbach
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philadelphia Orchestra,  Philadelphia Singers
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1888/1896; Germany 
Venue:  Live 

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