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Mahler: Symphony No 6 / Schwarz, Royal Liverpool

Release Date: 02/24/2009 
Label:  Artek   Catalog #: 46   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Symphony No. 6, “Tragic” Gerard Schwarz, cond; Royal Liverpool PO ARTEK 46 (78:36)

Gerard Schwarz’s Mahler cycle, recorded in 2005 but appearing on silver disc just now, continues with this solid reading of the Sixth Symphony. While for me it misses the deeply felt angst of the Bernstein-Vienna Philharmonic version (DG 427697, on two CDs), it certainly would not discredit anyone’s collection. In many ways it resembles Bernard Haitink’s first Concertgebouw version, which I Read more always rather liked until Bernstein pinned me to the wall.

One feature of this recording that scores points over both Haitink and Bernstein is the transparent, almost 3D orchestral detail achieved by engineer David Pigott, and in this very difficult work I commend him highly. One of my complaints with so many modern classical recordings, particularly orchestral, is the tendency towards ambient goop that distorts details. Schwarz and Pigott have outdone themselves in making every string pizzicato, bell, piccolo, and muted horn passage sound with extraordinary clarity. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so particular about this aspect had this been a symphony of Haydn or Beethoven (though they, too, deserve proper balance), but I’ve always considered Berlioz and Mahler to be special cases, which is one reason I have (and appreciate) very few monophonic recordings of either composers’ work. In addition to the instrumental clarity, Pigott also uses the wide range that digital recording makes available to present a “terraced” sound in which one can discern quite clearly the many fine gradations that Schwarz achieves—not only pianos and mezzo-fortes and fortissimos, but also pianissimos, sforzatos, and every shade in between.

For a good comparison of Bernstein’s reading to Schwarz’s, listen to the last few minutes of the first movement. With Schwarz, everything is in place, conducted at steady tempos that almost border on metronomic, the varied sections of the orchestra diverging and coalescing towards a splendid climax. Then listen to Bernstein: a flatter perspective, not as discrete an orchestral texture, and a tempo that works its way from somewhat slow and trudging to a martial pounding that almost seems to want to burst your speakers. The orchestral sound is much rawer, but so is the feeling: the flutes and trumpets almost sound hysterical, at the end of their emotional rope. A tightening of tempo is suddenly relaxed for a few seconds before the last eight bars come crashing down around you.

Schwarz and annotator Barbara Heninger are at odds on the order of the middle movements. Heninger says that though the second score edition and Mahler’s own performances placed the Andante before the Scherzo, “he is said to have wished his original order restored in later years. It is in this order, Scherzo followed by Andante, that the symphony is generally presented, as it is in today’s concert.” She then discusses Scherzo before Andante, but Schwarz follows the opposite route. Personally, I like this sequence better, if for no other reason than that the Scherzo resembles the first movement too closely to follow it immediately. Schwarz’s reading of the Andante suspends time: one is not aware of a forward momentum so much as a floating of slow notes in space. I’m not sure I like the effect, but it is different and consistent with Mahler’s own description of it as an ascent into the calm, pastoral atmosphere of the hills.

The third movement (Scherzo here) is the most disappointing, completely lacking the grotesque feeling that both Haitink and Bernstein achieved, though it is beautifully played. The opening of the last movement also misses the ecstasy of yearning for something better that is later countermanded by the mounting tension, but again one hears orchestral details not always evident in others’ recordings. The hammer blows are stunningly engineered, and the closing minutes of the Symphony are as powerful as anyone’s.

A good reading, then; a little quirky at times but showing an independent mind filtering the score and finding a few different things in it. I still wouldn’t consider it a first choice. Bernstein-Vienna and Haitink’s readings of the score strike me as more valid, but it’s certainly worth a listen.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 6 in A minor "Tragic" by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1904/1906; Austria 

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