Not long ago, I was impressed by a live recording of Mahler’s Ninth symphony by these same artists (review). Here now is a performance of the Sixth that they gave about a year earlier. Before we hear the performance there’s a spoken introduction, illustrated with a few musical examples, in which Benjamin Zander addresses the audience. It’s worth hearing, but you probably won’t want to do so repeatedly. In it, Zander exhorts the audience to engage with the music through listening actively and tells us that the music “has stirred deep feelings within these players.”
A couple of points should be made about the presentation of the symphony. Firstly, Zander, like many other conductors, places the Andante moderato third. That’s the order with which I “grew up” and for a variety of reasons I preferred it to the order which places the Scherzo third – as Mahler himself did in all the performances he conducted. That is, I did prefer it until a recent performance by Sir Simon Rattle (review) went a long way towards persuading me that Mahler’s second thoughts – slow movement followed by Scherzo – were probably preferable. Zander also placed the slow movement third in a 1994 live account with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and he comments in a note in the booklet accompanying that release that listeners who wish to hear the slow movement second can always programme their CD players accordingly. That may be a way round the issue but then one is not experiencing the performance as the conductor intended and that’s especially the case with a live recording. The other thing that Zander does is to reinstate the third hammer blow in the finale. He justifies this by arguing that Mahler excised the blow, not for compositional reasons but because he could not bring himself to conduct it. Zander argues that this was a decision personal to Mahler the conductor, and that conductors nowadays need not feel bound by it.
In this account of the Sixth the performance of the first movement is very good. The march material is taut and the players articulate and project it strongly. I think Zander sets an eminently sensible pace. It’s clear that the orchestra is fully engaged and I like the way that Zander – and the engineers – bring out a good deal of internal detail without any artificial highlighting; that’s a feature of the recording as a whole. In the cowbells interlude (12:00 – 14:50) the bells and celeste are ideally balanced so as to produce a feeling of distantly-remembered nostalgia. In this episode I admired very much the phrasing of the strings, the woodwind and the principal horn. The last couple of minutes of the music – in which we hear the “indomitable spirit” referenced by Zander in his introduction – are exultant.
The opening of the Scherzo is trenchant and weighty, the accents sharply articulated. The music is made tart and biting, as it should be, and throughout the movement you can tell the players are relishing the grotesque aspects of Mahler’s scoring. The altväterisch passages are well pointed and I like the way Zander keeps these episodes on the move. There’s lots of refined and subtle playing to admire in the Andante moderato and though it’s invidious to single out individuals, Joseph Cradler, the principal horn, deserves plaudits. The first oboe and clarinet players are no less impressive. Throughout the movement the orchestra seems keenly alive to the nuances in the music. The climax (from 10:19) is impassioned.
Already these young musicians have played some 50 minutes of demanding music but the greatest test lies ahead in the shape of Mahler’s immense finale, which is draining, both technically and emotionally. Let it be said straightaway that the members of the BPYO show no signs of wilting in the face of these demands; the brass, including the horns, are particularly heroic. The orchestra doesn’t put a foot wrong in the exposed, ominous long introduction. Once the grim march which is the main body of the movement gets cracking the performance is precise and full of electricity. The first hammer blow (12:41) is pretty mighty – from the photo in the booklet, it looks as if some kind of large wooden crate is struck with a big wood mallet. The second blow (17:11) unleashes a musical maelstrom for a few minutes. I very much admired the turbulence and tension in the performance leading up to the third hammer blow (27:48). Subsequently, the bleak darkness of the coda is expertly controlled – one admires the stamina of the brass players who are able to articulate this so well after all their preceding efforts. After giving their all for some 80 minutes the members of the BPYO richly deserved the ovation they received: it’s just a pity that the audience couldn’t have waited for more than a few seconds before showing their appreciation; after all, a good performance of Mahler’s Sixth – and this is a very good one – should leave the listener shell-shocked.
Benjamin Zander conducts Mahler’s Sixth very well indeed; he certainly has the measure of the music and it is clear that he has considered it deeply. Furthermore, he inspires these highly talented musicians to give a performance of genuine worth. Technically, it’s extremely accomplished but, in addition, one is left in no doubt that the players have dug deep and gone beyond the notes themselves.
The performance is very well recorded and apart from the applause at the end there’s no real evidence of an audience. The booklet includes a note on the symphony by the late Deryck Cooke.
It’s worth mentioning that there is another, earlier live recording of the Sixth conducted by Zander. This is the recording that I referenced earlier. On that occasion, Zander conducted the Boston Philharmonic in March 1994. The venue was a different one: the Jordan Hall of the New England Conservatory in Boston. That recording has a bit more acoustic space round the orchestra, which some listeners might prefer. One point is worth making. According to the notes, which are by the late Michael Steinberg, the hammer blow was produced by striking a timpani crate with a plumber’s pipe. The result is a sharp ‘thwack’, rather like a guillotine: it’s one of the most chilling hammer blows I’ve ever heard in a performance of this symphony and I rather wish Zander had recreated the effect in his 2017 performance. However, I don’t think that the BPYO need fear comparison with this performance by their seniors. This is another notable Mahlerian achievement by Benjamin Zander and his young orchestra.
Click here to listen to the recording.