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Mahler: Symphony No 6 "tragic" / Levi, Atlanta Symphony

Release Date: 04/28/1998 
Label:  Telarc   Catalog #: 80444   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Yoel Levi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 18 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

It’s been a privilege to hear this disc, which I have to say I admire profoundly. I’ve long been aware of it,but until now never managed to listen to it. Over the past forty or more years I’ve heard or owned innumerable LPs, pre-recorded cassettes and CDs of this piece. These have ranged from Charles Adler’s pioneering set to the most recent digital versions. I can tell you that this one is among the very best. It’s a performance of explosive power and truly exhausting intensity, and Telarc’s recording puts you there in the stalls.

In case anyone out there doubts the abilities of the Atlanta Symphony - for long since known mainly for the many recordings Robert Shaw made with his Chorale - let me assure you that you’ll not find
Read more more polished playing in New York, Boston, Chicago, Phildelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco or Los Angeles. Their ensemble can only be wondered at, especially given the pace at which Levi drives them, and individual sections and players distinguish themselves again and again.

I can’t tell you how impressed I am with Levi’s conducting. One of the most striking achievements here is the extent to which Mahler’s every marking is loyally enacted. This score - far more than anything Mahler wrote previously - is meticulous in defining relative dynamic levels between potentially weak voices (low flutes, for example) and stronger ones, most especially in passages where balance might otherwise go awry. So it’s not uncommon to find fff and pp in the same chord, where Mahler wants to ‘adjust’ the texture in favour of a particular instrument, or simply to guarantee equality of voicing. For example, one passage in the first movement (Bar 336, if you have access to a score) has three different sonorities contributing to the sound character of a single idea - flutes ppp, violin and violas pizzicato p, and celesta f. (This extraordinarily original approach to sound was to be profoundly influential on younger Viennese composers - such as Schoenberg, Berg or Webern - who fell under Mahler’s spell.) Applied to melody - a technique known as Klangfarbenmelodie, or ‘tone-colour-melody’ - it results in the ‘colour’ of a phrase shifting tellingly at its highpoint, or as it fades away. The arresting major-minor chord which prefaces the second theme of the first movement is a good case in point: trumpets diminuendo ff to pp as oboes (simultaneously) crescendo p to ff, so the chord mutates from trumpets to oboes, with barely any alteration to the perceived ‘aggregate’ dynamic level.

Forgive me for this digression. It’s important because, time and time again in this performance, one is made to question the unexpected prominence of a particular instrument, only to find that what Levi gives you is precisely what Mahler intended. The same applies to changes in tempo, many of which Mahler expects to take place (sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually) midway through a bar, or even before one group of instruments has finished a phrase. Levi follows his instructions to the letter: what Mahler writes is what you get.

The first movement goes at a cracking pace. In fact I’ve not heard it so hard driven since Bernstein’s old New York (Sony, formerly CBS) recording. It’s almost as exhausting to listen to as one imagines it must have been to play. To be honest - though I’m generally open-minded about such things - I can’t really see how a tempo which is about as fast as could possibly be managed can be justified here, given Mahler’s clear instruction and qualification. He clearly marks it Allegro energico, ma non troppo! The scherzo isn’t much less breathless, but, oddly and inconsistently, the finale is notably spacious by comparison, albeit no less powerful.

The first movement exposition repeat is omitted, by the way but I consider this no great loss. Myself, I regard it as little more than an eccentric admission by Mahler that he was writing his one and only ‘conventional’ organic sonata movement. If anything, its observation distorts (rather than enhances) the movement’s symphonic proportions.

I’ve saved mention of the slow movement until last, and deliberately. It’s here (but only here) that Levi is surely eclipsed by the competition - or some of the competition. True, his orchestra plays beautifully, and he shapes everything lovingly. If you’re persuaded first and foremost by this music’s sweetness and intimacy, this may be more than sufficient. But, once you’ve heard the passion and unrelenting concentration which characterise Bernstein’s and Karajan’s recorded performances, it’s difficult to accept the lightness of touch favoured by others. On DG, Bernstein directs the massed forces of the Vienna Philharmonic with a unanimity which is spell-binding. They play as if they are his right hand. And Karajan, also on DG, inspires the Berlin Philharmonic to play like a chorus of angels, with an intensity which lifts one out of one’s seat. Beside these, Levi’s sounds understated.

Of course, in comparing recorded versions of the Sixth, it has to be said that two-disc versions (the Bernstein and Karajan mentioned above; also Abbado, Haitink, Chailly, Barbirolli, Tennstedt and Solti) are a more costly proposition than the single-CDs of Levi and Boulez - and your listening experience will be interrupted, as in the good old days of LP! Rattle is on two discs too, but with two movements on each CD: so you can’t even ‘correct’ his controversial running order (by re-programming) which places the slow movement second.

In this hotly competitive field, you should perhaps allow yourself to be tempted by the Boulez, Bernstein or Karajan alternatives, despite the additional outlay. But, if you do so, beware of what you’re turning your back on: this is a superb bargain!

-- Peter J Lawson, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 6 in A minor "Tragic" by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Yoel Levi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1904/1906; Austria 
Date of Recording: 06/1997 
Venue:  Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA 
Length: 78 Minutes 7 Secs. 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 second review-changed my mind May 14, 2012 By David Warfel (Middlebury, VT) See All My Reviews "When I first reviewed this disc it struck me as way too fast of a tempo and I didn't like it at all. I was used to the Horenstein recording which is a lot less franctic. However, since then I have
listened to it quite a bit and have become very fond of this recording. I noticed that the tempo marking for the first movement seem to indicate that it should be done with energy, so perhaps Levi is doing the right thing after all. Now I am used to the very fast
first movement and actually enjoy it. The rest of the Symphony is more in line with the traditional tempo, although still a little on the fast side.
The recording is well done, but I can't really hear the cow bells at all, which I miss. A few other minor effects with the instruments are missing, but over all the sound is very good. I am very happy with this purchase and would recommend it for anyone that likes Mahler. At this price, it is a bargin. I am glad that Arkiv said that this was a good disc to buy and they were right.

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