SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

* MAHLER: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” – Miah Persson, soprano/ Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano/ Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Bernard Haitink, conductor – CSO-Resound

********* MULTICHANNEL DISC OF THE MONTH ********* Mahler as he is meant to be heard.

Published on January 1, 2010

* MAHLER: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” – Miah Persson, soprano/ Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano/ Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Bernard Haitink, conductor – CSO-Resound

MAHLER: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” – Miah Persson, soprano/ Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano/ Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Bernard Haitink, conductor – CSO-Resound Multichannel SACD 901 016, 1:22:02 ***** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

I started out not liking this much. But—this is usually the case when I hear this symphony in a new recording for the first time. Mahler has the curse of suffering a great largesse of interpretative nuance, and this, his most popular work, is the one that gets the most critical scrutiny. It was his first great success, even though it was written piecemeal over a five year period. There are so many warning signs in this for me, so many things that have to be just right, that if they are not I get disappointed. As a result, there are very few recordings of this work that truly satisfy me.

The greatest I have ever heard is Bernstein’s radio broadcast from the Blossom Music Festival with the Cleveland Orchestra in the summer of 1970, the one and only time he ever conducted that orchestra. It is a sensational performance, and should be released by the Clevelanders immediately (I haven’t heard it on the radio for about 15 years or so). The same conductor’s New York recording from 1963 still sets somewhat of a standard, though the sound was long ago passed. It’s not bad—I haven’t heard the newly-remastered version of that great and historical series (though what I have heard makes me shy away—apparently there is a great deal more treble. I have the box from 2001 that also includes the Kindertotenlieder with Janet Baker, something the new set does not) so I can’t compare with the new one, but even here the sound is good enough to present Mahler in his full-blown glory.

One of my first issues is the opening accelerando in the upward-scaled strings. So many conductors artificially start this off at a slower tempo in order to make that speed-up. This is not what Mahler called for, and Bernstein gets it right. So does Levi (Telarc), Slatkin (Telarc), and Tilson-Thomas (SF). The other critical issue is the sound of the chorus in the final passages of the last movement; if this is not overwhelmingly glorious, I feel let down. Yoel Levi and Atlanta have hands-down the most glorious finale on record; it is stunning to hear, even if it is not in SA. This recording is something of a benchmark, and more people should know it. It and the Bernstein have the best finales, though Levi is more deliberate than Lenny, who makes some beautifully pointed episodes in almost all of the movements. His choral work on the later DGG recording is also very well recorded, though he adds a much slower conclusion to the descending chromatic scale at the end of the first movement, while Levi mimics Bernstein’s 1963 recording and takes it at a rapid tempo. I would not be without either of these two readings.

So what of this new Chicago issue with the venerable Bernard Haitink? Since it is in SACD, I think it only fair to compare like to like. Zinman (RCA) is the cleanest on record, almost too clean, and at times his otherwise excellent Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich sounds thin in the strings. He is no-nonsense all the way, as you might expect. The much heralded Ivan Fischer (Channel Classics) and his Budapest Festival Orchestra (especially for Mahler’s Forth, which I have not heard) is not as clear as Zinman, but more exciting, though neither he nor Zinman get the opening right. Fischer’s finale is more exhilarating and very well sung, though lacking the punch of Levi. There are a few overdone, rather “tubby” sounding moments as well, especially in the percussion. Slatkin’s Telarc is now released in SA, though only two-channel, but Telarc’s “Soundstream” process really packs a wallop. (If you want to do a really interesting comparison, listen to the Atlanta/Shaw Carmina Burana in regular CD and then SA—the difference, even though still in two channel, is astounding.)

We have to turn to Tilson-Thomas to find a really first-rate SA Second. His San Francisco players are beautifully captured in lifelike sound, somewhat recessed compared to these others, but on a wide stage with pristine sonics. Thomas gets the opening absolutely correct and has a suitably moving ending, though again not quite as powerful as the Levi. But this is definitely one of the top-rank Mahler twos. The new Chicago is done by a master Mahlerian who has spent a lifetime with the work. Haitink, in the short time he has been in Chicago, has managed to bring a more silken sound to the string section, never known for its lustrous tone. Don’t get me wrong, they are better than 95% of the strings sections out there, but compared to Philly/Ormandy they don’t come close (who did for that matter?). But I like what I hear here, and they have a fine Mahler sound to them, coarser when needed, but also capable of great beauty in the longer lines. The winds and brass are just about perfect, playing to the traditional strengths of this orchestra.

This is not a version I am recommending because of its great interpretative insights; in fact, it is rather relaxed. Haitink’s tempos are very deliberate (I won’t say “slow”), almost as if he is wallowing in the impressionistic aspects of Mahler’s score just to revel in the sonorities. He also misses the opening like Fischer and others. No—what makes me rate this version highly is the magnificent sound, surely the best this symphony has ever received. The breadth and depth of the soundstage have to be heard to be believed, rich, warm, and so full of sonic potency. You can almost imagine a third dimension to it, so vivid does it come across. Another reason is the chorus, the second greatest in America (sorry, the Atlanta Symphony Chorus still reigns supreme), and no surprise since it was founded by a Robert Shaw student (Margaret Hillis), later an assistant conductor of Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale before assuming Chicago duties. The current standards have been kept high by Chorus Director Duain Wolfe. The voices are set wonderfully, and the finale pages belong among the greats of recorded history. I might mention the two solo singers are also excellent.

This is not your one-and-only Mahler 2; the interpretation won’t stand up to that scrutiny. You have to have Bernstein, Levi, and Thomas. But this is a milestone, and audiophiles will salivate. All others will simply be in for a heck of a ride.

— Steven Ritter

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