Recording of August 2000: Mahler: Symphony 6

MAHLER: Symphony 6
Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra, Glen Cortese (cond.)
Titanic 257 (CD). 2000. Charles G. Thomas, exec. prod., Jerry Bruck, eng., Michael Karas and Eric Wagner, assoc. engs. AAD? TT: 76:27
Performance: ****?
Sonics: *****

With such glamorous competition on the Mahler market, what could a student orchestra from the Manhattan School of Music and a virtually, unknown conductor have to offer the international recording world? Plenty, as it turns out. Critics begged for a Mahler moratorium in the early 1990s when everybody but Christopher Hogwood was recording these neurotic masterpieces, but that's because the interpretations started to sound the same. This one, however, has something different to say.

Most often, the four movements of the 6th symphony are delivered as relatively homogeneous blocks, each with a singular, overriding characteristic A valid justification might be that this is Mahler's most classical symphony and each movement is such a bubbling cauldron of emotional expression that the only way to keep them from losing momentum is by shoehorning everything into the most consistent tempo scheme possible. Some of the most high-toned conductors were utterly guilty of this, with Herbert von Karajan being one of the worst offenders. The truthteller was Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose 1992 recording of Symphony No.4 on Sony Classical took a hard look at the score and found that frequent tempo shifts—often thought to be the caprice of the late conductor Willem Mengelberg, whose pioneering outing seemed to be a singular experience—are clearly written into the score.

So it is, too, with the 6th. Pick a movement—say the Scherzo, which tends to be played with the most uniform tempo—and one finds a huge variety of tempo markings occurring on average of every ten bars or so. This is what Cortese & Co. embrace, which doesn't mean that the music is being pushed and pulled every which way, To say that the performance has a greater sense of light and shade is putting it mildly.

Entire worlds—and worlds within the worlds—open up in each movement. The tender, so-called "Alma music" of the first movement (said to be a portrait of the composer's wife and children) has rarely had so much of its own character. The famous slow movement, with its idyllic evocation of sunlit uplands populated by placid cows, also has, at times, an ecstatic intensity that becomes painful. Among the many discoveries in the scherzo is a musical cameo appearance from Wagner's Fafner (the dragon in Siegfried) with its ominous lower brass. And what can one say about the final movement? Overwhelming. Even in the most reductive performances, it's beyond that here.

The reason each movement hangs together so well is because these varied tempos are subdivisions of each other. Perhaps there's also a heat rising from a passionate plea for the original order of the inner movements. Though the symphony is most often played according to the composer's second thoughts—scherzo first, andante second—the return to the composer's original plan, as heard here, is far more convincing.

Even before I knew the order of the movements was an issue, the scherzo's manic, march-like rhythms always seemed redundant when immediately following the similar manner of the first movement. As performed here, the slow movement is a respite from the first movement and the scherzo, which, in any case, leads more logically into the almost insanely varied, 30-minute final movement. Cortese isn't the only advocate of this order (Simon Rattle is, as well), but he's an extremely convincing one.

Another textual point is the third hammer blow of the final movement: Mahler deleted it before the first performance and Cortese honors that decision. I disagree, since Mahler's reasons were more superstitious than musical.

As a recording, this disc might seem a rather humble affair, especially with a student orchestra and a venue (New York's Riverside Church) that hardly seem ideal for a Mahler outing. However, like many topflight student orchestras, this one can play, at least on occasion and with the benefit of extra rehearsals, on a level with the world's best. Here, it does so with the extra "oomph" of youthful energy in what must have been a hair-raising live performance.

The venue is a bit more problematic: the church's acoustics put a nice wash over the orchestral colors while not unduly taxing the clarity of the sound. But with ears accustomed to a lot of multimiking, one strains to hear inner details. They're there, but too often too distant, particularly the brass. Bass response is remarkably light, but will that stop me from returning to this disc often? Absolutely not —David Patrick Stearns