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Mahler: Symphony No. 6 / Saraste, Oslo Philharmonic

Release Date: 01/25/2011 
Label:  Simax   Catalog #: 1316   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 20 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Symphony No. 6 Jukka-Pekka Saraste, cond; Oslo PO SIMAX PSC 1316 (80:20) Live: Oslo 3/10–12/2010

At one point, not so long ago, Simax appeared to be in the process of recording music director Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic in a cycle of the Mahler symphonies. Nos. 1 and 9 were released together in 2003 (reviewed in Fanfare 27:3), and No. 7 appeared in 2009. Things got more complicated, however, when Jansons was recorded by both LSO Live Read more and RCO Live in the Mahler Sixth; the First, Fifth, and most recently, the Second were released on RCO Live, while a different Seventh, this time with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, appeared on BR Klassics. So, now we have this new Sixth, with the current music director of the Oslo Philharmonic, Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Perhaps the cycle will resume under the new maestro ( his Ninth is on Hänssler Profil with the Cologne WDR orchestra, though).

The performance opens at a moderately brisk pace, roughly midway between Bernstein’s blitz and Barbirolli’s crawl, weighty but not dragging. The bottom-end sound is quite reverberant, but this actually aids in communicating the implacability of the march (the sound in general is excellent, with a wide soundstage and exemplary detail). “Alma” shines brightly, the sheen of the Oslo violins helping to dispel the glowering intensity of the first theme. The “music from far away” is effectively removed from the world of the march, its cowbells audible but never intrusive; the clarity of the sound production is especially helpful with the delicate violin tremolos and the tones of the celesta.

The Scherzo (Saraste follows Mahler’s original design) is notable for the highly expressive playing of the orchestra; the pounding rhythm of the first movement here becomes more of a pulse than a preoccupation. The Trio is more satire than nostalgia, characterized by annotator Malcolm MacDonald as “the image of a querulous, stuttering old man.” Saraste clearly sees this movement as a caricature of the first, a grotesque exaggeration of the simpler darkness and light of the Allegro energico . The Oslo Philharmonic demonstrates its mastery of the Mahler idiom in the Andante with playing of perfectly blended sensitivity and poignancy. Saraste adopts a tempo that avoids the temptation to linger in this more peaceful realm, yet the music never feels rushed due to the intensity of the playing, as if to say, even at his most peaceful, there is always drama in Mahler’s world.

How much more harrowing are those skeletal, foreboding notes of the finale immediately after the ending of the Andante! Through three-quarters of this performance, Saraste has adopted tempos that are on the quick side of the average; in this last movement, he takes his time, fully exploring Mahler’s devastating phantasmagoria. The hammer blows are impressively deep but not particularly sharply defined, integrated into the low-end sound; nor is there much differentiation between them when ideally they should diminish in impact, which is easier to discern when the sound is drier and more distinct. Saraste observes the third hammer stroke, in keeping with Mahler’s original conception. The final, fatal chord isn’t the shock of some recordings, but it still decisively slams the door shut.

Malcolm MacDonald’s note resurrects the middle-movement controversy, suggesting that Mahler “declared his intention to restore the third hammer-blow and return to the original order of the movements” in 1910. I have no idea where the justification for this claim comes from, but it’s news to me. He also observes that “this [original version] is now the common practice” in performances of the Sixth, when in fact most recent recordings, and many concert performances, have adopted Reinhold Kubik’s decision that the revised order—Andante-Scherzo—is the correct one. We should probably all heed Henry-Louis de La Grange’s advice that there will never be a “final” version of this symphony, and it is recordings like this fine new one that attest to the viability of Mahler’s original conception.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 6 in A minor "Tragic" by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1904/1906; Austria 
Venue:  Oslo Konserthus 
Length: 80 Minutes 17 Secs. 

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