Mahler 6 – Michael Gielen

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.6 in A minor
Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6
Andante in B minor, D936/2

SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg
Michael Gielen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: October 2001
CD 93.029 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 56 minutes

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, he’s 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 Suk’s A Summer Tale. Gielen is a versatile and penetrating musician.

There’s no shortage of Mahler 6s in the catalogue, but few are as good as this; that is, few are as revealing as this. There’s 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 ’Alma’s theme’ (Mrs Mahler) in the exposition at 2’49” and 7’52” (repeat observed) offers momentary joy during this dark journey. Gielen accentuates the foreboding, the symphony’s ’Tragic’ epithet starkly underlined. Gielen doesn’t play to the gallery; his entire focus is on the music, how it’s 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 don’t need to think and are impressed by application and effect, then Gielen’s too good for you. There’s 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 Gielen’s 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. Gielen’s 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 Gielen’s 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 – I’m 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 Mahler’s lyrical import; the focus is again on direction and searching – this is the core of Gielen’s 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 Mahler’s 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 he’s backed a loser from the off. When the first ’strike’ comes (at 13’01”) it sends the music into catastrophe – you may find Gielen too controlled here; but he’s exceptional at sorting out the strings’ counterpoint from 15’19”: what needs to be brought out, is (Gielen has antiphonal violins). Earlier, Gielen makes his own the passage between 10’13”-10’27”, an eerie balance of violins, metallic percussion and trumpet: we’re in the world of Busoni’s (then still to be written, eventually unfinished) opera Doktor Faust, which Gielen knows intimately.

Gielen appreciates Mahler’s paradisal longing and that fate is omnipresent – the second hammer-blow is shattering; shivers down the spine time. By now, the third clout isn’t needed; Gielen doesn’t play it – in editorial terms, he goes with Mahler’s last thoughts on movement-order and ’superstitious’ orchestration.

Throughout, attention to phrasing, detail, dynamics and ’harmonic balance’ is astute; I am gripped by Gielen’s 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, I’ll still say ’yes’. It depends though on what you want, what you’ll hear, what you’ll make off Gielen’s insights. I’m 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 Tchaikovsky’s ’Pathetique’ and Ravel’s La valse. The transfer here is not quite as vivid, if more rounded, with more acoustic; I prefer the Intercord. Berg’s extraordinary Op.6 is well chosen. Like Mahler’s finale, Berg closes with a march, one that will also be crushed by hammer blows as Berg develops Mahler’s ’worldly’ passion, albeit with a more complex language that doesn’t dissipate Berg’s powerful communication – this is music in nightmare and collapse, composed as World War One started. Karajan is my yardstick here; with him, Gielen’s 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 Newbould’s realisation … and we can also hear these Schubert drafts rendered by Berio. Schubert’s lonely walk through the forest, triumph and disaster in attendance, reminds of … Mahler.

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