Currentzis Turns to Mahler's Sixth Symphony

The utter devastation and hopelessness conveyed by Teodor Currentzis' recent Sony Classics recording of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.6, "Pathétique," was so shattering that I could not wait to hear what he and his MusicAererna orchestra of Perm, Russia would do with Mahler's Symphony No.6 in a, "Tragic." In fact, I was so eager to experience Currentzis' first recording of Mahler's music that I listened to the 24/96 download even before the physical CD becomes available on December 7. (The recording is currently streamable in 16/44.1 on Tidal, Idagio, and other services.)

Although my praise for Currentzis's Tchaikovsky was met with criticism from some who decried its limited dynamic range, those considerations did not stop the album from winning the Japanese Recording Academy's Gold Award. It also won a Diapason d'Or, earned 5-star reviews from The Times and NRC Handelsblad, was named best classical recording in Spiegel Online, made it to Gramophone's Top 3 list for "Orchestral Recording of the Year," appeared on the New York Times Best Classical Music Recordings list for 2017, and will soon receive additional recognition from Stereophile.

While I did not dare measure the dynamic range of Currentzis's Mahler, which was recorded at Moscow's Dom Zvukozapisi (House of Audio Recording) by Giovanni Prosdocimi, I noted that the recording sounds a bit darker and less air-filled than Michael Tilson Thomas' native-DSD recording of Mahler's Sixth. Though I would not rule out the possibility of some dynamic compression, the soundstage is extremely wide and three-dimensional, and colors fairly saturated. Bass could be a bit stronger, but that's true of many recordings of symphonic works.

Regardless, the interpretation brings life to Currentzis's understanding of the symphony, which he expounds upon in the liner notes:

"Mahler's music does not present a dichotomy between consolation and hopelessness. It is the hopelessness that gives consolation. ...this is a symphony that offers catharsis through its finale. It is different to feeling destroyed, broken down, ruined at the end of his Ninth Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde.

". . . The Sixth Symphony ...ends in darkness, but it's a sheltering darkness, one that peculiarly enough offers refuge . . . After this symphony you don't feel destroyed. You are even more alive than before/ You are better than before. . ."

Even as the vigorous first movement marches straight ahead, as though nothing could possibly slow it down—Currentzis's 24:56 finds a potent medium between Leonard Bernstein's 21:23 express train extreme with the New York Philharmonic and Haitink's recent 25:56 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—it presents a curious mixture of dread and exhilaration. Even in the midst of tragedy, a certain optimism begins to emerge that reaches its culmination in the magical paradise that Mahler creates a little over halfway in. True, there are moments that feel like absolute war and a rush to arms, but Currentzis to move beyond them. The movement's ending rewards us with one of those truly glorious Mahlerian washes of sound that defy description.

Currentzis places his 12:36 Scherzo—one of the fastest in my collection—next. (Some conductors play the Andante moderato as the second movement, and place the Scherzo third.) I found much of the Scherzo extremely enjoyable, even riotous.

The Adagio—one of Mahler's truly great Adagios—bathes us in a glowing sense of peace. Orchestral sonorities are marvelous, the wealth of sound something to revel in. A touch of darkness may appear at movement's end, but it seems almost beside the point. (In admittedly quick comparisons of several other performances of this movement, only Claudio Abbado's with the Berlin Philharmonic succeeds in expressing Mahler's underlying sadness.)

The fourth movement paints a somewhat serene landscape where ominous clouds hover over a pasture while cowbells ring with nonchalant innocence. The magical iridescence that blossoms in parts of this movement make its disturbing rumbling of cellos and sounds of alarm all the more disturbing. Imagine a beautiful landscape suddenly destroyed by bombs falling unexpectedly from the sky, and you'll get a sense of the potential tragedy that lurks beneath the calm.

Even when the music grows dire, it is balanced by more wondrously radiant passages filled with mystical glory. Few of Mahler's symphonic movements are blessed by sounds as otherworldly as these. Although the symphony's ending is disconsolate, and marked by huge percussive explosions, its overall emotional and spiritual effect is somewhat akin to a sadomasochistic experience in which the agony of enslavement paves the way to ecstatic freedom.

If that's a reality that you can acknowledge, even if solely on the mental plane, you simply must experience how Currentzis expresses it. Even Michael Tilson Thomas's cathartic San Francisco Symphony performance of the Sixth, which took place right after we were all shaken to the core by the tragedy of 9/11, did not move me as much as this recording of Currentzis' remarkably transcendent, virtually visionary interpretation of Mahler's music.

foxhall's picture

I don't know how anyone could criticize Currentzis' Tchaikovsky 6. Explaining my emotions during numerous listens escapes me.

I'll go into the 6th this evening without any expectations.

NeilS's picture

"...Currentzis's 24:56 finds a potent medium between Leonard Bernstein's 21:23 express train extreme with the New York Philharmonic and Haitink's recent 25:56 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—..."

Bernstein's first movement of Mahler 6 with the the NYPO is characterized as the "express train extreme" with 21:23 timing. Bernstein's is one of the faster first movements that I've heard, but I believe the conductor on the "express train extreme" on this piece is Dimitri Mitropoulos - by quite a few train lengths. For example, his first movement of Mitropoulos' Mahler 6 with the Cologne Radio Orchestra in 1959 comes in at 18:44, and MVT 1 of his 1955 recording with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra comes in at 17:52.

On another point, I don't understand why the reviewer "did not dare" measure the dynamic range of this album. It is certainly relevant, particularly because of the crushed dynamics of Currentzis' Tchaikovsky 6 (the worst being a third movement with a 7 DB dynamic range according to JRMC's audio analysis). No matter how many awards the Tchaikovsky 6 apparently has gathered, it sounds to me like something mastered for listening on cheap earbuds in subways at rush hour. For me, a "once and done".

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thanks so much for bringing the Mitropoulos performances to my attention.

I was raised on acoustic recordings of Caruso, Galli-Curci, and Tetrazzini. I learned every note of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto from Oistrakh's Columbia recording, which I played on a cheapo player. Yet those voices, and that music, resonate in the depth of my being.

I am certainly an audiophile - the pains I take with my system attest to that. But as long as a recording is not so harsh that it hurts my ears, I'm willing to listen to see if the musical content moves me. When it does to the extent it did here, I write a review.

I would never propose this recording as "Best of the Month" because I, like you, disagree with the engineering choices. But for those willing to live with dynamic compression, which was common to many classic LPs that are revered by audiophiles, this recording is a must-hear.

NeilS's picture

I'm a dinosaur, my reference conductors are Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwangler, so I'm used to old recordings. My favorite Beethoven sonatas are by Artur Schnabel, my favorite Debussy by Walter Gieseking - both from the 1930s.

But there's no particular connection I've seen between the age of the recordings and dynamic compression (other than during the sad period we now live in called the Loudness Wars).

For example, according to JRMC's audio analysis, Gieseking's Debussy Book I Preludes recorded in 1936 have a dynamic range between 13 DB and 17 DB, and Schnabel's Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle from the early 1930s, between a 10 DB and 17 DB dynamic range. The oldest recording in my collection, Mozart: Fantasia In C Minor, K. 396 by Sergei Taneyev is from an 1891 wax cylinder (thanks, Ward Marston!). According to JRMC audio analysis, this 127 year old recording has a DR of 19 DB. It sounds like it was recorded on pitted slate, but it has a terrific dynamic range.

That's solo piano, what about works with an orchestral component? Well, same thing. For example, according to JRMC audio analysis, David Oistrakh's Mendelssohn Violin Concerto from 1949 has the following DR results: MVT 1: 15 DB; MVT 2: 15 DB; MVT 3: 12 DB.

I think there's plenty reason to "live with" the limitations of the technology on which historic recordings were made. I don't think there's any reason to "live with" dynamically compressed recordings made in the 21st century. I think it's a different issue.

Mr. Ives's picture

Certainly, the timings of the first movement of the Mahler Sixth vary, as NeilS mentions. But, some readers may not be aware that there is an exposition repeat in this sonata-form movement. Most conductors that I've checked observe this repeat (Vänskä, Abado, Inbal, Zander, Bernstein/NYPO), and thus movement timings of ca. 23–25 minutes result. Bernstein does take this movement rather quickly, resulting in the mentioned timing of 21:30. But, his later recording with the Vienna Philharmonic results in a time of 23:09, and he SKIPS the repeat! John Barbirolli's reading, conducting the New Philharmonia for EMI, is noticeably slower in tempo; he also skips the repeat, but his first-movement timing is close to Bernstein/NYPO at 21:20. Dmitri Mitropoulos's 1955 recording appears quick when considering the 17:52 timing, but he also skips the repeat, which can easily account for the six or seven minutes that many other conductors have to labor. As well, Mitropoulos is not consulting the "final," critical edition of the score by Erwin Ratz, published only in 1963. (You can view all the pages of Lennie's copy of this score online at the NYPO's Leon Levi Digital Archives.)

So, there are many issues to keep in mind here. Readers may not have heard Inbal's 1986 recording for Denon, but I highly recommend it, in part because of it's minimal-microphone set-up in Frankfurt's Alter Oper. The "ultimate sound"? Perhaps one that I was involved with as recording engineer: the Reading (Pennsylvania) Symphony Orchestra, Sidney Rothstein, cond., from January 1992. A single Schoeps "Sphere" stereo microphone digested all these complex sounds, and the dynamic range is enormous! (Maestro Rothstein also skips the first-movement exposition repeat.)

Long-time listener's picture

"...its overall emotional and spiritual effect is somewhat akin to a sadomasochistic experience in which the agony of enslavement paves the way to ecstatic freedom."

For some, maybe. For me, Mahler is a composer who wallows in his own depression and sadness, and his "hammer blows of fate" are simply gauche and ridiculous. I no longer waste my time on this composer. But to each his own.

As regards dynamics, there have been many times when I've felt that concert-hall dynamics belong in the concert hall, but not necessarily in my living room or in the earbuds in my ear canals. Regardless of whether I'm listening on earbuds in rush hour or in my smallish living room, I don't always like what, in those situations, SOUND subjectively like exaggerated dynamics.

John Atkinson's picture
Long-time listener wrote:
For me, Mahler is a composer who wallows in his own depression and sadness, and his "hammer blows of fate" are simply gauche and ridiculous.

I think it depends on the performance. It must have been 1980: I was living in a small village in Sussex, England when I saw an ad in our local paper that (a young) Simon Rattle was conducting the amateur Salomon Orchestra in Mahler 6 at a local private school. It was one of the most moving concerts I have experienced - the hammer blows were soul-shattering - and every recording of Mahler 6 I hear reminds me of that magical evening.

Time to watch the Ken Russell Mahler movie again!

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Long-time listener's picture

"I think it depends on the performance..."

Yes, you're right. It depends on many things, from the performance to every aspect of one's own personal makeup, and all of them are subjective. Yet part of me won't quite believe EVERYTHING is subjective. An article--in Stereophile I believe--once proclaimed Maher to be "the new Beethoven." Sorry, no. Never. For my part, a composer who can write just one piece that is tightly-knit, brilliantly imagined and orchestrated, and that evokes an amazing panoply of moods and vistas--such as Holt's Planets--is a greater composer than one who writes nine (or ten) symphonies that are sprawling, banal, and maudlin.

But that's just me. Others clearly choose other adjectives when describing Mahler's music. Subjectivity (mostly) rules.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Given that Mahler died many decades before the founding of Stereophile, I can't imagine that this comment originated in Stereophile. Regardless, I can't figure out what in the world it's supposed to mean. It's like saying that Donald Trump is the new Santa Claus.

One of the wonderful things about humanity is that we're so diverse. Different voices speak to us. Thank goodness, there's enough music to go around.

volvic's picture

The hyperbolic writer who idolizes Mahler may have coined that phrase when he wrote a book about Gustav Mahler. While I am here let me chime in, plenty of Mahler 6's to go around, bit iconoclastic here, do like the Karajan version believe it or not, as well as the Haitink version but in keeping with my recent love affair with anything Barbirolli will go out on a limb and put that on the top of my list. Funnily enough I might be the only human on earth who dislikes Bernstein's over the top Mahler renditions. Colour me silly.

BTW John Atkinson why is it when I am on a page such as this one and want to log in and leave a comment, after I log in, I get taken to a blank page with white body and no text? This doesn't happen on Analog Planet or Audiostream. Perhaps someone should run through the code and see where the bug is?

Peace and love.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Certainly not from Norman Lebrecht. But I get it as well. I think everyone does. As far as I can tell, it hasn't stopped anyone from going back to and posting.

volvic's picture

Was far from certain on whether or not, but that’s where I remember reading it. Happy listening!

Long-time listener's picture

JVS, I am apparently missing whatever it is you're trying to say vis a vis Mahler's death and Stereophile. Beethoven has often stood as a kind of mythic or iconic figure that we think of when we think of "composer." Whoever wrote the article, or wherever it appeared, I recall that they were trying to say, essentially, that Beethoven was a bit outdated and that Mahler speaks more to us in our modern condition--and that therefore Mahler really ought to replace Beethoven as THE iconic or mythic figure we think of as representing "a composer." That Mahler should be considered a greater composer than Beethoven. In other words, the new Beethoven.

But anyway, subjectivity rules when dealing with an art form that perhaps expresses emotion more directly than any other. Please continue to revel in your Mahler and ignore any comments I might make. I only express what seems obvious to me, but the opposite seems equally obvious to others. I've owned four or five complete sets of the Mahler symphonies as well as many individual recordings. If you're interested in any of them--Svetlanov's probably hasn't entered your collection--I'd probably be happy to send them to you. Cheers

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Santa Claus is immortal :-) ...........

ok's picture

..Ludwig Wittgenstein –a diehard conservative in all things outside philosophy– once wrote that it takes a long series of the rarest talents for one in order to produce this kind of genuinely bad music :-}

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

There is much debate over the extent to which Wittgenstein's internalized self-hatred of his Jewish ancestry contributed to this assessment of a composer who was attacked and mocked relentlessly for his Jewish ancestry and appearance.

ok's picture

..although he appreciated him a lot as a conductor.