Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 2,
Simon Rattle, cond; Kate Royal (sop); Magdalena Kožená (mez); Berlin R Ch; Berlin PO
EMI 47363 (2 CDs: 86:23) Live: Berlin 10/28–30/2010
Twenty-five years ago, a 31-year old British conductor took his provincial orchestra into Watford Town Hall and began sessions for a recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony (a piece he had first conducted while in his teens). This was not the conductor’s first recording, nor was it his first Mahler
recording; six years earlier he had recorded the Cooke version of Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony, an audacious undertaking for a 25-year-old (mostly) unknown musician. It was this EMI recording of the “Resurrection,” however, that propelled conductor and orchestra from mostly regional fame into the wider consciousness of the classical music audience.
The slightly hyperbolic introduction above describes, of course, Sir Simon Rattle’s controversial first recording of Mahler’s Second, released the next year. It was the kind of polarizing occasion about which public relations personnel dream: Michael Kennedy’s glowing review in the august
magazine (“in a spiritual class of its own, a Mahlerian testament.”) produced a backlash of sometimes over-the-top dismissal in other publications. Whatever the ultimate fate of the recording, it wasn’t going to be ignored. Like thousands of others, I was intrigued enough to buy the set. I was powerfully impressed, and I remain so, embracing Rattle’s unabashedly dramatic approach and finding it entirely appropriate to this ultra-romantic score. For those unconvinced by that recording, my advice is to stop reading now.
The saga didn’t quite end with the success of the recording, though: Sir Simon himself had some reservations about one of his most successful recordings. In an interview with me for this magazine (
22:5), Rattle was characteristically candid: “When I listen to the beginning of the Second Symphony now, I feel it sounds … I feel it’s too much. I feel the spirit is right, but it’s too much. But then, this is part of the thing of performing: You always wish you could undo what you did last year.” Luckily, Rattle retains the kind of clout with his record label that allows him to revisit the scores that still preoccupy him (being the music director of a powerhouse orchestra doesn’t hurt).
Rattle’s two performances are remarkably similar. To begin with, the difference in duration between the two is less than a minute, virtually identical in a work of this length. The overall conception is still one of intense drama. In the first movement, to oversimplify somewhat, I was aware in the earlier recording of the many emphatic details in phrasing, while in this new performance, the long arching narrative of the movement is primary. Some flourishes have disappeared: that slight hesitation in the ascendant phrase in cellos and basses at the beginning is gone, for one notable example. (There are remnants of the earlier recording, though: The “plunge” at the end of the coda is very deliberate, as it was in 1986.) Tension is felt in less obvious ways now. The violin tremolos that are a distinct effect throughout the movement (and indeed, elsewhere in the symphony) are here always just on the verge of audibility; Rattle’s characteristic genius for exploiting dynamic contrast is very much in evidence. Whatever Rattle meant by “too much” in the older recording, this new one is just as distinctive, if for different reasons.
The Andante is very similar to the earlier version; as before, it opens disc 2, and Rattle adopts the same flowing tempo. There is more warmth in the Berlin Philharmonic strings, and Rattle now seats the violins in Mahler fashion, on opposite sides of the conductor, producing much clearer counterpoint. The pizzicato passage is even more redolent of the Vienna of Strauss
The cannon shot in the timpani that opens the Scherzo is abruptly loud, and the movement is weightier with very heavy, prominent basses; even the rute is more audible this time around—altogether, this is a more sinister Scherzo than heretofore, the “cry of anguish” near the end almost startling in its intensity, preparing the way for the opening of the finale.
Magdalena Kožená’s mellow mezzo is heard even as the tam-tam decays, truly
. This recording is one of the most effective at realizing the placement of the accompanying bassoon, contrabassoon, horns, and trumpets that provide the chorale: These need to be at the rear of the stage, and this effect, combined with the very prominent positioning of Kožená’s voice, produces a somber, intimate setting for the song and provides a stark contrast to the surrounding movements. Kožená’s performance is invested with an imploring quality that is very moving, never seeming to be merely a mannerism. The eruption of the finale is a highlight of the recording; it isn’t just loud so much as a sudden shock after the calm of “Urlicht.”
This is probably the moment to mention the sound production. Quite simply, this is the most impressive stereo recording that I’ve heard in quite some time. As good as the original EMI production was in 1986—and it was very good indeed—this new one is even better: There is a sense of depth and presence to the soundstage that rivals many SACDs in two channels, and the orchestra, chorus, and soloists are balanced within the reverberant, spacious acoustic with a natural quality that is friendly to the ear and still manages to accommodate all of the forces without distortion or compression. Detail is excellent, from the “struck with the bows” passage in the first movement to the last triangle note. One characteristic highlight is the “opening of the graves” episode in the last movement: This is now a longer crescendo, building to a tremendously impressive climax. As a former percussionist, Rattle must have enjoyed this moment immensely.
The two solo voices are well matched, though they are quite similar: Kate Royal’s soprano possesses a dark, mezzo-like quality; Kožená is one of a handful of mezzos capable of matching the performance of Dame Janet Baker on the earlier recording. Kožená’s effortless volume and clear articulation, matched with her innate dramatic sense, are perfectly suited for both the song and the finale. The chorus, under the direction of Simon Halsey (who served in the same capacity for Rattle’s first recording), is masterly, and the sound production serves them well. With the organ and chorus at full throttle, and Rattle’s superb sense of pace, the finale is a shimmering, celebratory catharsis.
It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the Berlin Philharmonic sounds splendid. From the powerful, burnished sound of the brass to the aforementioned warmth of the strings, only superlatives do justice to this kind of orchestral excellence.
Like Leonard Bernstein before him, Rattle has made the Mahler Second a sort of signature piece, programming it for the inaugural concerts of the new Birmingham Symphony Hall, and at his farewell concerts in that city a few years later; I am confident that it will be on the program when Sir Simon celebrates his 80th birthday. This recording raises the bar for performances of this symphony; like its predecessor it is worthy of comparison with that of Klemperer on EMI (and, indeed, Bernstein/New York Philharmonic on Sony). There have been some impressive stereo recordings of the Second recently (Paavo Järvi on Virgin, reviewed in
34:2, comes to mind), but this new set surpasses them all. Very highest recommendation.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 2 in C minor "Resurrection" by Gustav Mahler
Kate Royal (Soprano),
Magdalena Kozená (Mezzo Soprano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,
Berlin Radio Chorus
Written: 1888/1896; Germany
Date of Recording: 10/2010
Venue: Live Berlin Philharmonie
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