The challenge of Mahler: A conductor needs insight and maturity

There was a time when the release of a Mahler symphony was heralded as a major recording event. When the Leonard Bernstein cycle was completed, it was greeted as a supreme accomplishment.

Then came the Kubelik cycle, and the Solti, and even one from Maurice Abravanel and Utah Symphony. These made stereo performances available to the budget market for the first time. And now we are in the midst of a cycle by the relatively new star conductor Klaus Tennstedt, as well as one by the still-young James Levine, and rumors of another Bernstein cycle in the wind. Still others will undoubtedly come to the fore who will be deemed irresistably marketable as Mahler interpreters.

These performances are all of a very high level, and a few are top of the list for that symphony.

Had I begun writing this article a few months earlier, I would have given pride of place to the Karajan Sixth, and it will forever remain one of the great Mahler performances on record. The fiery drama is all there, the shifts from bright to dark, from lightness to devastation, from some sort of promise to total obliteration. The Berlin Philharmonic is consistently the greatest orchestra in the world today. The engineers have caught that sound better than they usually do for Karajan.

But then, a few months ago, the Tennstedt Mahler Ninth crossed my desk, and I have not been able to put it out of my mind. It is probably the best Ninth ever put to record, the very finest thing he has done on disc.

With Tennstedt, the mood of the moment is very much the prevailing influence. Obviously, the moment captured here was uncommonly propitious. Tennstedt at his best manages to convince the listener of the absolute rightness of each tempo chosen. Here he gets under the skin of the music, giving us the searching, suffering Mahler without excess, without hysteria, but with tremendous dignity, volatility, power, and passion. The inner two movements provide the marvelous contrast while sustaining the thread of the musical journey.

And that consummately difficult last movement manages to be the most convincing, radiantly tranquil culmination on records. Here Carlo Maria Giulini gets a bit more from the Chicago than Tennstedt does from the London Philharmonic, but marvelous as Giulini's is -- it, too, is one of the great Mahler recordings -- it is not so unprepossessingly Mahlerian as Tennstedt's.

And jsut to complicate matters further, James Levine has made a bold, vivid, magnificient stab at the Ninth as well. Until this performance, I kept thinking Levine was really 10 years away from giving us the sort of Mahler he is capable of. But the Ninth is vindication. It is a more youthful, impetuous Mahler that Levine shows us, and very eloquent. The Philadelphia plays a bit raggedly now and then. Sadly, both Tennstedt and Levine are severely damaged in the last five minutes by their respective companies' noisy pressings, RCA being slightly worse than Angel here. All that grit and swish in the grooves often renders the strings nigh inaudible, and when one switches to European pressings, suddenly the music can be heard again.

The question of pressings is becoming more and more of an issue, as reproduction-technology advances allow even less expensive and sound system to reveal more of what is in the groove -- dirt, junk, music, and all. London has managed to steer fairly clear of this problem, and DG does well (though Philips takes top honors always for pressings and lack of surface and noise). Perhaps that is why Zubin Mehta's Third Symphony is such a joy to listen to it. It is well recorded, the dynamic range is wide and impressive, and you can hear the quiet moments without pops and grit.

Mehta sculptures a magnificent account of the work, from brassy opening to noble close. There is real sense of Mahlerian magic throughout, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays very well, if without the glow and richness that marked the Vienna Philharmonic in Mehta's Second Symphony of a year or so back.

Mehta has also turned in s stunning Mahler Fifth with his former orchetra, in fact probably the finest stereo Fifth until RCA sees fit to reissue Erich Leinsdorf's definitive account with the Boston Symphony. This elusive work can easily become too rigid, or too flabby, with hardly any effort from the conductor. Mehta does not weigh it down with huge metalphysical messages, and the tempo in the finale, while fast, seems always right. Tennstedt doesn't fare as well, being rather too loose and diffuse in his reading.

Levine's Sixth is no match to Karajan's. Where the latter is expressive and ominous, the former is strictly a tempo. If it's a straight Sixth you're after, with little mood and little expression but clear playing and good sound, you could stop at this. But what you would be missing? And if Angel would ever see fit to reissuing the classic Barbirolli recording, even Karajan's would have to step aside interpretively. No one else that I have heard has ever given us the tragic, cataclysmic Mahler in this work with as muc h power and shattering impact.

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