“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”

High Fidelity Review: Mahler - Symphony no. 3

Mark Jordan - High Fidelity
CD Reviews — March 22, 2004

Now THIS is the real thing. Here is a disc to remind classical lovers why we got so passionately attached to music in the first place. Mind you, this is not to say that this new hybrid SACD from Telarc will be welcomed in all corners… Let us save Benjamin Zander’s detractors the trouble of writing another clucking review by writing it for them: “Though Zander is a committed Mahlerian, his performance of the ‘Third’ misses the long line of the piece, breaking down into a series of dramatic episodes without an overlying architecture.” All I can say is, thanks be to the gods for that! Any performance of Mahler’s ‘Third’ that tries to make it sound like an efficiently structured Haydn symphony is completely missing the point. The architecture of this overgrown, overeager, Irish Setter of a symphony could best be described as “rural sprawl”. Anyone tracing a straight, unwavering course through it is missing the whole reason for visiting the lush weed-garden of Mahler’s imagination in the first place: The sheer, mad, nature-worshipping excess of it all. Zander keeps track of where the path is sufficiently enough to find his way out (which cannot always be said for the loveable, lazy summer day performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony on their recently released SACD), but far more importantly, Zander gleefully detours into the undergrowth and down the little-used paths in order to experience Mahler’s great pantheistic tome richly, joyously, even terrifyingly. Granted, I suspect that there’s much art concealing Zander’s unification of this sprawling work, but above all, this is a performance about the emotions evoked by nature and one’s personal experience of it. Not contemplating, but communing. Those who prefer to pursue the fetish of sleek, gleaming style will be better served elsewhere (Boulez, Abbado, Tilson Thomas). Zander obviously does not put great stock in refinement for refinement’s sake. Zander’s Mahler is for enthusiasts: Those who want to experience the pure, abrasive taste of genius. No kid gloves on this podium.

Zander’s first movement actually holds together much better than most, not merely through the range of selected tempos, but more pertinently through the awareness of every shift of the composer’s mood. Whereas the long-treasured Unicorn recording from 1970 of Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony finds its unity through a very restricted range of tempos, Zander finds his momentum in Mahler’s invention. The movement is certainly loaded with happenings, but there is always an emotional thread leading from one section to the next, and Zander never fails to find that fulcrum which turns the musical narrative into each new direction. After the opening fanfare, Zander does not move into the scowl of the first theme by rigidly beating time, nor does he stretch it out and dawdle. He simply finds the pulse of this wintry theme emerging out of the subsiding shudders of the fanfare. Especially present throughout is a visceral sense of wonder – when the summery second theme comes in, most performances seem a trifle embarrassed by its naaпvetй, and the conductor normally assumes his best poker face, beating time until it is past and things get more complex again. Zander, instead, finds the sense of wonder in this plain music – instead of sounding trite, now it sounds like the first buds of spring poking their heads out into the world. What in less insightful hands sounds like music for a Disney cartoon becomes here a delicate watercolor contrasted with the bold slashes of color surrounding it.

Of special delight are the trombone solos – unlike the Tilson Thomas’ San Francisco performance, with its rather laid-back trombone, this version invokes the profane and lusty god Pan, with soloist Byron Fulcher carefully keeping his tone just this side of a rude burr, at least until Pan turns dreamy and thoughtful in later solos. The teeming “rabble” (Mahler’s word) portrayed in the center of the movement are a similar delight. Where so many others fear losing momentum, Zander is unafraid to dive in and let the players characterize the music. Those conductors who restrain Mahler’s eccentric expression in the name of momentum or architecture end up making the work seem not timeless but endless, because there is nothing more tedious than lack of character. Throughout, Zander proves attentive to Mahler’s various layers, making sure that players with overlaying parts play free of the beat where required, such as when the snare drum enters at a different tempo over the cellos and basses just before the fanfare’s reprise toward the end of the movement. Telarc’s recording (engineered by Jack Renner with assistance from Polyhymnia International) clarifies the layering at this point, especially in the multichannel version, where the snare drum is far off to the side and a little toward the left rear surround channel, thus cutting across the plane of the strings, who come from the front. Zander’s mad dash through the coda of the first movement is bound to prove controversial, for it’s even faster than the buoyant zip of James Levine’s 1976 RCA recording. To be sure, it is a calculated, daredevil stunt, but functionally it punctuates the fact that Part One – this vast half-hour long symphony-within-a-symphony – is over.

Moving on to the remainder of the work, which Mahler designated as Part Two: The second movement comes up very fresh here, which is not an easy trick – the movement’s delicacy and subtlety usually lead to pleasant but bland run-throughs, something that I don’t think Zander could do even if he were threatened at gun point. Characteristically, the shifting atmospheres are more clearly defined here than is typical, revealing a play of brightness and shade as varied as the light on a partly cloudy day – even, perhaps, with a passing rain shower or two.

The scherzo is nicely judged at a flowing tempo (“Commodo”) but without any sense of rushing (“ohne Hast”). Zander carefully distinguishes the mood of this movement in contrast to the first movement, pointing out its more ambivalent and inscrutable colors in the outer sections. But his absolute masterstroke is the posthorn solo, played magically by Alistair Mackie. Mahler agonized about this passage, vacillating between using trumpet or flugelhorn as the solo instrument to evoke the old-fashioned sound of the posthorn, the little horn that European postal carriers would sound as they arrived in town. In the end, Mahler simply designated the part literally as “posthorn” in the score, leaving it up to individual performances to approximate the sound. Zander had the novel idea of tracking down a genuine period posthorn (yes, they were still being made in Mahler’s time) for the solos. As Zander’s note in the booklet points out, it is a “famously intractable instrument” and the difficulty of it may have led to the use of a moderately flowing tempo through the solos, as opposed to slowing to a crawl as some performances do. But the dreaminess of the solos are not lost, because the instrument has been placed further away than is customary, having its volume controlled by opening and closing of a door to offstage. Indeed, what we hear on the recording seems as much hall reverberation as original sound, so much so that I had trouble locating whether the sound was coming from in front of me or behind me, out of the surround channels. After careful listening, I determined that the instrument is closest to the front left channel, though its sound somehow permeates the whole hall, perhaps through other opened doors or connected passageways backstage. The sound is so distant, the instruments on stage are forced to lower their volume to an enraptured whisper, otherwise, they would have drowned the posthorn out completely. The effect is stunning. Suddenly I felt like I was standing in a field in shimmering, sweltering midday heat and the sound of the posthorn was lazily floating in from miles away. The return of the scherzo proper is like walking out of the fields and back into the shadowy, mysterious woods with all their hidden creatures scampering about just out of sight. Like Leonard Bernstein in both his recordings and Tilson Thomas in his, Zander realizes that the visionary flare-up just before the coda (which echoes the similar eruption just before the end of the first movement), is in some sense the turning point of the symphony – from out of nature, something human and self-aware fully emerges, something which was only briefly glimpsed in the first movement. Wisely, Zander keeps the tempo measured throughout the following coda, not letting it turn into a hectic flurry like Solti or Abbado. The rebounding of nature in reaction to that visionary human moment must have great energy and power, but performances which ride the coda of the scherzo like a racehorse miss the threat which is such a characteristic part of the world beyond humans evoked in this symphony.

Very possibly the most difficult movement to perform effectively in all Mahler’s symphonies is the fourth movement contralto solo. It is no doubt easier in a live performance – in concert, the contralto soloist has the advantage of being able to make eye contact with the audience and to register the emotions of the text visually. But away from a live concert situation, there is nothing but the concentration of the performance to make this static (and ecstatic) music work. And, frankly, it rarely does. The ten or so minutes of static harmonies seem to last for hours on most recordings. But, gloriously, that is not the case here. Of course, Zander’s focus and flow keep the forward momentum from coagulating, and Maya Iwabuchi’s evocative violin solos lead us from thought to thought, but the movement depends above all upon the singer, and Lilli Paasikivi gives us true insight. Here for once, is a singer who isn’t merely singing empty tones. It sounds as if she has devoted time to understanding the text, and why Mahler summoned it up for this work. The text in question is the ‘Midnight Song’ from Nietzsche’s ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’, and the philosophical mixture of pain and ecstasy comes through, borne on a lovely, flexible voice, a completely different world from the wobbly, wooden honking that usually passes for singing in this music. What a delight it is to be carried away by this rapt song, instead of reaching for the remote to skip ahead! Kudos also to oboist Gordon Hunt and English horn player Jane Marshall, who had the courage to experiment with their instruments (and techniques), to actually play the “bird calls” as written (Mahler writes in his score that one tone should be “drawn up” to the next one, which implies a glissando-like effect.) The only other performance I’ve heard which does this is the excellent Simon Rattle performance on an EMI Compact Disc, but the Philharmonia players accomplish the odd, evocative sounds with greater subtlety than Rattle’s Birmingham soloists.

Delightfully, the sounding of “bimm, bamm” bells opening the fifth movement finds the boy’s choir placed in the rear channels, making excellent use of the possibilities of multichannel sound. Besides its charm, the practical benefit of this layout is that the back and forth exchanges and moments of counterpoint between the Tiffin Boys’ Choir under Simon Toyne and the Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir under Neville Creed are greatly clarified. Too few multichannel recordings have taken advantage of such features, and I hope this provokes others to consider where it is possible to place instrumentalists in the surrounds without disrupting the concert layout the composer had in mind. An exemplary use of the technology. Interpretationally, Zander plays the fourth, fifth, and sixth movements back to back, thus he doesn’t let the brightness and vigor of the fifth movement run amok. Nor does he miss the darkening of shadows in the middle of the movement, which serves as an effective reminder that the piece has not run its course quite yet, that the terrors of the first movement have yet to be conquered.

And thus we come to the simply glorious ‘Adagio’ finale. Zander’s tempo is beautifully judged, not as self-consciously slow and “profound” as Tilson Thomas or Levine, nor is it impatiently rushed like Solti. It simply unfolds in the most natural, singing manner possible, gradually but movingly confronting the darker elements we first met in the opening movement. Sweetest of all is the final upwelling of emotion and joy in the noble concluding pages – Zander uses a light touch on the steering wheel, letting the orchestra soar radiantly. It’s the kind of thing I have witnessed Christoph von Dohnбnyi do in concerts many times: Build up to a grand climax with strong, detailed direction… then just turn it over to the players and let them play without the conductor flogging out the beats. I was not witness to the recording sessions, but one can imagine Zander beaming as the orchestra took Mahler’s heartfelt music and soared.

In terms of recording venue, Zander’s Mahler cycle has been something of a moveable feast, though not every hall has been to my taste! The most troublesome was the ‘Ninth’, recorded live in concert in 1996 in the unfriendly acoustic of London’s Barbican Center. I have not yet heard the ‘Fourth’, but by the recording of the ‘Fifth’, the venue had moved to the Watford Coliseum, with notably improved richness and depth due not only to the hall, but also to the use of high-resolution technology. The recording of the ‘Sixth’ was even better, mastering the Watford acoustic and giving us one of the most vivid orchestral recordings ever made (read the review here).

For this recording, the venue is switched to the Walthamstow Assembly Hall, with marginally less success. Though the recording is vivid, the soundstage here seems wider than it is deep, which is helpful when instruments are playing on opposite sides of the stage, but the front-to-back depth isn’t quite ideal. But judging by the amount of hall sound we hear on distant or offstage instruments such as the post horn, full orchestral passages would have turned very boomy if the instruments would have been pushed back any deeper – yet this moderately shallow depth and somewhat lean bass are specifically in comparison to the blockbuster ‘Sixth’ recording. On its own terms, the sound here is incredibly good, and judging by other recordings made in this venue that I have heard over the years, this may be as fine a recording as can be made in Walthamstow Assembly Hall.

Also of note is the dramatic dynamic range and natural balance. In that, it reminds me slightly of Horenstein’s Unicorn recording (although that provided more of a balcony perspective). Anyone who regularly attends live concerts will be aware of the natural tendency of the brass instruments to dominate everything else when they play at full force. It was something that Mahler was certainly aware of, and his scores are built with that in mind. Telarc’s recording captures that blaze without adding spot microphones to “boost up” the strings. Percussion emerges very crisply, especially the very first cymbal crash during the opening fanfare. With the aforementioned restricted depth of the hall, the move from the stereo CD layer to the stereo SACD layer is not as dramatic as some, but the shift from stereo to multichannel SACD is vivid indeed, with an opening up of the room and a greater clarity of localization for instrument placement. As is usual with Telarc, there is a discrete bounceback from the rear channels that keeps the hall space clearly defined as you listen. Most impressive is the engineers’ capitalization on the hall’s strengths: The width of the soundstage and the evocative use of the hall’s natural reverberation make this recording, despite the above caveats, truly demonstration class. Or, to put it another way, if the Telarc Zander ‘Sixth’ was most impressive in the loud parts, the Telarc Zander ‘Third’ is most impressive in the quiet parts.

As an added bonus, this release features another of Zander’s enthusiastic lectures, enclosed on a separate stereo Compact Disc. Though aimed more at the newcomer than the connoisseur, these talks always shed light on not only Zander’s approach to Mahler, but also his approach to music in general. Vivid, irrepressible, and effectively illustrated with smoothly integrated highlights from the recording, this lecture disc is included with the two-disc recording of the symphony, all for the price of a single disc, which means that this release is not only the best performance of Mahler’s ‘Third’ on SACD, it also has the most value-added features, and is the most affordably-priced, to boot.

Ultimately, Mahler’s ‘Third’ is easily accessible in many ways, but also confoundingly elusive in others. There is certainly no shortage of fine performances of it – even on SACD we currently have Tilson Thomas and Boulez, with a reissue of Abravanel’s recording slated for release from Artemis in the near future. But to bring so many insights and so much emotion together in fine recorded sound means that this Telarc release is hard to beat. Indeed, I once again find myself nudging aside old favorites in recognition of another outstanding Mahler recording by Benjamin Zander. Is it everyone’s cup of tea? No, I’d say not; pure, undiluted, unsweetened Mahler is not a drink for the faint of heart.


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