Symphony No.6 in A minor Berg
Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6 Schubert
Andante in B minor, D936/2
SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg
CD No: HÄNSSLER CD 93.029 (2 CDs) Duration: 1 hour 56 minutes Reviewed: October 2001
Mahler 6 - Michael Gielen
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
This release accentuates the dividing line between musicians who have a non-stop publicity machine and gullible audiences to bolster them, and those whose reputation is acquired by outstanding work in a far-flung place that is discussed by those in the know. Just who is Michael Gielen? Well, hes one of the great conductor, born in 1927 (in Dresden), who worked with Erich Kleiber and who has subsequently held positions in Cincinnati and London (BBCSO). And this is a great Mahler 6 with the Orchestra he is perhaps most closely associated with. As a conductor he has championed the most difficult of contemporary music and, as a composer, written some of it and made illuminating recordings of Haydn, Beethoven, Bruckner, Rachmaninov, Janacek and Tchaikovsky. I have heard him give stunning live performances of Mahler 7, Bruckner 8 (the original 1887 version) and Suks A Summer Tale. Gielen is a versatile and penetrating musician.
Theres no shortage of Mahler 6s in the catalogue, but few are as good as this; that is, few are as revealing as this. Theres Bernstein, Karajan and Solti all take the first movement too fast (though none are as ludicrous as Neeme Jarvi); Barbirolli goes the other way, a fault in the right direction, and his is a hard-won traversal. Yet, those conductors that get the pacing of the first movement spot-on are few. Only Chailly and Sinopoli come to mind: both suggest the hero as determined against the odds, struggling against the elements weighed-down with a heavy backpack. Gielen creates this image too and goes on to introduce mind games into the music: ritenutos suggest memory-flashback; the radiance of Almas theme (Mrs Mahler) in the exposition at 249 and 752 (repeat observed) offers momentary joy during this dark journey. Gielen accentuates the foreboding, the symphonys Tragic epithet starkly underlined. Gielen doesnt play to the gallery; his entire focus is on the music, how its written, why it is notated thus, and what it suggests in physical terms.
If you like your music served up as a ready-meal, where you dont need to think and are impressed by application and effect, then Gielens too good for you. Theres nothing spurious from Gielen he draws you into the music, offers the listener room for a response, rewarding those who come to a score to extend their appreciation of it.
Mahler has now become a showpiece composer, a vehicle for display; Gielen offers an 85-minute trek that is stark and challenging, a gritty, unsensational reading that wins through because of Gielens fastidious study of the score and his concern for the music, not himself. And the music is rather deeper and more psychological than might now be realised. Gielens Baden-Baden players are honest and committed; the 1999 recording is a tad diffuse and variable in balance; the occasional cough suggests a live performance.
This scarcely matters when Gielens interpretation is so absorbing. He offers a musical and emotional amalgam that I found draining; Gielen, intentionally or not, requires listeners to work hard. Tempos are ideally judged: if you must have the scherzo second Im normally one for the slow movement in that position then Gielen convinces, through his dogged tempo, that the scherzo is really a continuation of the first movement and belongs as its aftermath. The succeeding Andante moderato flows without compromising Mahlers lyrical import; the focus is again on direction and searching this is the core of Gielens overall approach and moments of visionary release are ignited spontaneously.
The epic finale, just over half-an-hour here (which feels about right), is suitably exploratory and triumph-seeking but in Mahlers grand design the "hero" is felled by two (or three) hammer blows. This is not an easy ride from Gielen; the "hero" Mahler himself knows hes backed a loser from the off. When the first strike comes (at 1301) it sends the music into catastrophe you may find Gielen too controlled here; but hes exceptional at sorting out the strings counterpoint from 1519: what needs to be brought out, is (Gielen has antiphonal violins). Earlier, Gielen makes his own the passage between 1013-1027, an eerie balance of violins, metallic percussion and trumpet: were in the world of Busonis (then still to be written, eventually unfinished) opera Doktor Faust, which Gielen knows intimately.
Gielen appreciates Mahlers paradisal longing and that fate is omnipresent the second hammer-blow is shattering; shivers down the spine time. By now, the third clout isnt needed; Gielen doesnt play it in editorial terms, he goes with Mahlers last thoughts on movement-order and superstitious orchestration.
Throughout, attention to phrasing, detail, dynamics and harmonic balance is astute; I am gripped by Gielens profound understanding of the music and what he finds in it both programmatically and in terms of textual content. Do you need it? As you survey CDs of Mahler 6 stamped Chicago Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw, Ill still say yes. It depends though on what you want, what youll hear, what youll make off Gielens insights. Im not about to chuck out recordings previously mentioned nor Boulez or Rattle but Gielen brings a much-needed understanding of how Mahler spawned subsequent musical developments, of which Gielen is a hands-on practitioner.
Gielen enthusiasts will probably already have the Berg; it was released on Intercord in 1993 (INT 860.923) with Tchaikovskys Pathetique and Ravels La valse. The transfer here is not quite as vivid, if more rounded, with more acoustic; I prefer the Intercord. Bergs extraordinary Op.6 is well chosen. Like Mahlers finale, Berg closes with a march, one that will also be crushed by hammer blows as Berg develops Mahlers worldly passion, albeit with a more complex language that doesnt dissipate Bergs powerful communication this is music in nightmare and collapse, composed as World War One started. Karajan is my yardstick here; with him, Gielens different set of priorities can be joined by Boulez and Metzmacher.
Schubert? Not so curious in this company this is late Schubert, the slow movement of Symphony 10, as we now know Brian Newboulds realisation and we can also hear these Schubert drafts rendered by Berio. Schuberts lonely walk through the forest, triumph and disaster in attendance, reminds of Mahler.