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Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (conductor)
Recorded March, 2013 at the Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas – 79’11
dsoLive DSOL-5

Given that Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 is considered a relative wallflower among Mahler’s symphonies, with fewer performances than most of the others, it comes as a bit of a surprise that there are dozens of recordings. (“My day will come” said Mahler; he was right!) The Wikipedia article on the work lists 52 recordings and that list is incomplete. One indicator of the work’s daunting complexity is the fact that here are at least two books devoted solely to it, one of them being Robert Samuels’s Mahler’s Sixth Symphony: a study in musical semiotics; I promise not to discuss its semiotics.

Overall this recording is well-done and the orchestra is fully up to it. I find, however, that Jaap van Zweden’s approach to the first movement results in lapses in its energy. It is a diffuse stretch of music to make coherent (almost 23 minutes on this recording, even longer in others); while listening one cannot help but ask ”Where is this going?” In fact Mahler keeps us guessing right up to the end of the work; at times it seems as if he is going to deliver a big, triumphant ending out of all the sturm und drang, but finally he hurls everything into a black pit - thus the work’s appropriate nickname “Tragic”.

Van Zweden’s halting rendition of the first movement might be part of his overall view of the work so that the gathering together of disparate themes in the 30-minute final movement (which he does just fine) can have more of an impact. It could well be that his view is more persuasive in performance than on disc. As it is, though, I would prefer more sinew in the opening movement as one hears in Claudio Abbado’s CD with the Berlin Philharmonic. (Amazingly enough, the two performances differ in length by just one second.)

One item of dispute is the order of the middle movements. Mahler originally placed the scherzo second, followed by the andante. He then changed his mind but the message got muddled. Some conductors have recorded the symphony twice, using both orderings. Norman Lebrecht in his 2010 book Why Mahler? gives a convincing argument for having the andante as the second movement. It seems a more satisfying arrangement to me mainly because the vehemently martial opening phrases of the scherzo are so much like the opening of the first movement that it has more impact when placed third. This recording has the scherzo-andante order - but a listener at home can play them in any order he wants (is that cheating?) At any rate, the performance of these two movements goes along as well as one could wish.

There is also the issue of the hammer blows in the final movement. Mahler originally included three but then (mercifully)changed it to just two.The hammer blows are deliberately toneless loud thunks, and done well here (on some recordings - as that under George Szell - they are rendered in too subtle or polite a manner).

The label dsoLive is a relatively new initiative from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra as it joins numerous others in issuing its own performances. This is just the fifth CD they have issued and it is a bold choice. As mentioned above, it aims to nudge its way amongst an impressive list of recordings, many by the world’s most noted conductors. Welcome to the club!

Michael Johnson




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