In the earlier days of SACD, Benjamin Zander was a pioneer. His recordings of Mahler symphonies were some of the first of each work to appear on the fledgling format. Once Telarc got out of the SACD business, it seemed doubtful that Zander would come to complete a cycle of the symphonies. Now under the auspices of the audiophile company Linn, this recording marks his return to Mahler on SACD and it is most welcome.
Since his last recording, the catalogue has filled up with exceptional recordings of the work from the likes of the acclaimed Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra to the classic Vienna Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta. Admirers of the work will want to leave room in their collection for this newest performance.
Zander’s interpretation is not radical yet exceptional at the same time. His choices of tempi are in many ways middle of the road, with the “Scherzo” being the most extreme in its sheer singability. Yet his mastery of phrasing and shape makes for an exceptionally cohesive performance that, at times, astounds with its freshness. The space he gives his the score is perhaps the most revelatory contribution. The Philharmonia Orchestra seems to take the freedom and run with it yet perform with the utmost nimbleness of ensemble.
This is most successful in moments as in “The Great Call” of the last movement or the delicacy with which Zander navigates the Ländler of the second movement. But Zander still leaves room for force and drama as in the transition between the two themes in the “Scherzo” or the cascading final bars of the first movement. Still, this is not a recording in the mold of the late Bernstein with its extremes. There are more dramatic recordings to be sure. But this recording succeeds in bringing the wistful moments of Mahler’s music to the forefront, using those as a springboard, not in a melodramatic way, but reflectively to center this “Resurrection” as a personal and selfless struggle. It is this approach that makes the more audacious moments of the piece seem that much more powerful.
The Philharmonia perform with adroitness and sheer stunning beauty. The strings are particularly limpid with a clean, lyric tone that oozes refinement yet is still moving. The brass are particularly powerful yet extremely well balanced. The woodwind solos are superb.
Sarah Connelly sings “Urlicht” with a creamy, untroubled mezzo voice that shapes the long phrases with ease. Her consistency of production and color makes the piece luxuriant and moving. Miah Persson is outstanding as usual, but seems beset with a slight flutter. She still manages the utmost subtlety in her singing and her floating soprano is sumptuous. The Philharmonia Chorus is exacting and meticulous in their performance yet sufficiently robust at the climax of the piece.
The recorded sound, I must confess, may not be to everyone’s liking. The multi-channel sound is involving and richly detailed, but has moments of imperfection and the seemingly close recording of the forces makes for some odd shifts in sound placement. It is mostly minor and not a deal-breaker, but is a consideration.
Despite this, if you have room for another Mahler ‘Resurrection’ in your collection, Zander is worth more than a glance. The pliant and rapturous playing of the Philharmonia, the outstanding soloists, and Zander’s powerful and fresh reading make this an exciting release and a welcome addition to the catalogue. It was, thankfully, worth the wait.
Click here to listen to Mahler’s Symphony no. 2.