Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 6
Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond; Philharmonia O
SIGNUM SIGCD 275 (80:35) Live: London 5/28/2009
This is the second Mahler symphony conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor of the Philharmonia to be included in its series of recordings on Signum Classics; the first was the Ninth Symphony, reviewed in
34:2. The Philharmonia, of course, has a well-established track record with this symphony, beginning in 1967 under
Barbirolli on EMI (unfortunately not one of my favorites); the orchestra can also be heard in an underrated but excellent performance by Giuseppe Sinopoli on DG and, more recently, in Benjamin Zander’s classic set on Telarc SACDs. Salonen follows the 1963 Ratz edition of the score (Scherzo-Andante, two hammer strokes).
I’ve found Salonen’s Mahler to be straightforward and mostly untouched by exaggerated interpretational gestures; while this is often a relief from overly individualized performances, it can also seem somewhat clinical and cool, which was how the Ninth feels in the final analysis, as good as it is. This new Sixth, perhaps benefiting more from the conductor’s brand of objectivity, is successful in every way. The two main themes in the first movement are well differentiated, though others have made more of the sudden burst of sunshine that characterizes the “Alma” theme. The “music from far away” is evocative, and the engineers have produced a fine balance between the subdued orchestra, with its feathery violins, and the cowbell and celesta.
The Scherzo marches in at a measured tempo, and Salonen gives the movement a satiric air without overplaying his hand; the “pathetic” theme is perfect Mahlerian naïveté. The Andante is free of saccharin but not devoid of doubt. It is too easy to see this mostly peaceful movement as the calm before the storm in this version; Salonen finds the unease of the minor mode (initially in the English horn and principal horn, gathering emotional impact and then reversing the major-minor “seal” of the first movement by emerging in the major mode). In the finale, Salonen expertly guides the listener through Mahler’s soundscape of doom-laden portents and dashed dreams. The hammer blows are very deep, though the second is louder than the first.
Salonen doesn’t linger over details—some conductors, such as Michael Tilson Thomas, take more time in the first movement’s mountain air, for instance—but in the finale, Salonen takes just enough time to build an impressive air of apocalyptic menace. He is aided by a superb sound production that never calls attention to itself but supports conductor and orchestra with a rich, multitextured acoustic that offers plenty of instrumental detail and excellent bottom.
This generously filled CD presents a highly proficient performance in excellent stereo sound. There are many other one-disc versions available at full price, one of the most recent of which is the Simax disc conducted by fellow Finn Jukka-Pekka Saraste (34:6). Of the two, I would give Salonen a marginally higher rating, though either is eminently worthy of consideration.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 6 in A minor "Tragic" by Gustav Mahler
Written: 1904/1906; Austria
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