Camilla Tilling (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Zander
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: January 2002
CD No: TELARC 2CD-80555
The symphony plays for 59 minutes, a spacious rendition. On the bonus 79-minute CD, Benjamin Zander introduces the music; the first Mahler he heard aged just twelve. He cites the symphony’s ambiguities: “Classical and quite modernist, familiar and strange, approachable and weird, beautiful and harsh”. In this verbal description Zander is a faithful guide. In his conducting he proves a central interpreter by suggesting these qualities without underlining any particular one; Zander plays to the romance of the music, its subtlety, song and dreamy aspects.
Unlike Daniele Gatti (RCA) who exaggerates very convincingly the contrasts between innocence and nightmare, or Pierre Boulez (DG) who presents the symphony’s classical, even nostalgic leanings, or Colin Davis (RCA) who brings poise and, to the slow movement, a subterranean darkness, Zander’s undoubted overall grasp of the music propounds that such an all-encompassing view can over-mesh the symphony’s layers.
Given the choice of two recordings, it would be Boulez and Gatti; given one, it would be Boulez; from him the score is laid bare – precise and transparent. Should multi-CD versions be considered a luxury, a library version could well be Zander’s aware and balanced view.
In having antiphonal violins, Zander is using a seating arrangement that Mahler himself would have known and written for; time and again the dialogue between these two sections is enhanced. Zander presents this symphony vividly, if not always as subtly as required. This is partly to do with the recording, which is closely balanced. The familiar ample acoustic of Walthamstow Assembly Hall is foreshortened by presenting the orchestra with little front-to-back perspective. Such presence enhances detail but also reduces dynamic contrasts. The intimate perspective allows the winds and brass over-dominance, horns and trumpets especially (Mahler does not score for trombones or tuba). While clarity is welcome, the forward sound-picture can be overwhelming in tuttis.
Zander shows great affection for Mahler’s melodies, which unfold with warmth; the slow movement dusky, its variations effectively contrasted. In the finale, Camilla Tilling is a light-toned, expressive and suitably innocent-sounding ’child in Heaven’. I wish that the seven seconds of silence before the finale had been less; an attacca is not marked but it’s so effective. The ’Death Strikes Up’ designation of the second movement, in which the orchestra’s leader plays a violin tuned a tone higher for devilish effect, is a little subdued.
The Philharmonia Orchestra plays superbly, wind and brass solos are full of personality. Zander’s use of portamento is discreet, not least between 13’30”-13’33” in the slow movement, where the downward then upward slides are an imaginative microcosm of Zander’s discerning, minutely-observed view of Mahler’s most endearing symphony.