A dazzling new candidate for a first-choice Mahler Sixth
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 08/25/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It's cause for rejoicing to hear Tennstedt at his best, which almost always means live in concert. Here from August, 1983, at a Proms concert in Albert Hall we have the Mahler Sixth. Tennstedt's studio recording on EMI with the same orchestra was a high point in his complete Mahler cycle. Even though the London Phil. is duplicating that effort, this sweeping, highly charged performance puts the studio one in the shade. Sonics are quite good, especially considering the vastness of the hall, and the musicians, who adored their conductor, are on fire. That can mean a bobble here and there and some smudged lines, but these pale beside the passionate playing. At 83 min., Tennstedt's timing forces a crossover of the finale on to a second disc. Therefore, even at a discount this can't be considered a bargain. I hope price doesn't prevent more listeners from hearing a model of Mahler conducting, in which Tennstedt displays endless variety of timbre, phrasing, and feeling.
The first movement starts with a moderate tempo in the march, and compared to Bernstein, Tennstedt isn't as relentless or grim. The real inspiration comes in the development, where Tennstedt's musical instincts bring out a mystery and tenderness few rivals can match. The successive returns of the march build into a heady wildness. Mahler's giddy extremes tempt many conductors into finding a middle ground. Thankfully, Tennstedt sees the futility of compromise, just as Bernstein does. This first movement poses a peculiar difficulty in that the music's violent eruptions lead to collapse, and then the momentum begins again at zero. Tennstedt keeps the pace from lurching; he has an amazing ability to renew the score's vitality every time it exhausts itself.
I think it's dweebish to fret over the order of te Scherzo and Andante -- if Mahler was undecided for years, there must be merit to putting either one first. Tennstedt chooses to plunge directly into the Scherzo, and you can immediately hear why. He wants to continue the abandoned mood established in the first movement, until the first Trio brings a drastic slow down. It's no less edgy and sardonic, however -- this performance affords few moments for the listener to relax. One marvels at the eerie humor and strange orchestral timbres Tennstedt evokes. Alberich and his minions would be happy to dance these grotesque steps. Most conductors let the Andante unfold as a simple, tender elegy, but Tennstedt passionately molds each phrase. As a result, the whole movement gains in stength and inwardness. He's the only conductor who wraps this usually refreshing interlude into the tragedy of the entire symphony.
The intensity of Tennstedt's focus exhausts the listener before the arrival of the shattering, cosmic finale. We are set up for catharsis, which depends on keeping the audience constantly agitated as the catastrophe comes nearer. Mahler creates one of his most complex worlds in this last movement, wringing exhiliration and mounting terror through tireless intensity. There is also a need for superb execution, and here the LPO can't match Abbado's Berlin Phil., or Karajan's before him. No matter -- neither of them equals Tennstedt's spontaneity and visceral impact. Mahler wants us to dance with him on the world's grave and lose our minds as we do. Tennstedt has no intention of holding back from that; for the first time in decades Bernstein's iconic readings of the Sixth find a worthy competitor -- or rather, an alternate view equal to his in intensity and rightness.