MAHLER :  Symphony No 2 – Heather Harper (sop) / Helen Watts (mezzo) / London SO and chorus / Georg Solti – HDTT

MAHLER :  Symphony No 2 – Heather Harper (sop) / Helen Watts (mezzo) / London Symphony Chorus / London SO / Georg Solti – HDTT [various formats including hi-res PCM & DSD from www.highdeftapetransfers.com] [Reviewed from DSD64 files] TT: 80:34 ****:

A historic recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony under Solti’s baton, now “resurrected” with HDTT!

Georg Solti (1912-1997) recorded prolifically for Decca from 1947 until the end of his life, and featured both as pianist and conductor.  The pinnacle of his achievement was, perhaps, his recording of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen though recordings vie for that top spot including a sublime reading of Elgar’s Symphony No 1.  His recordings of symphonies of Mahler began in Amsterdam during February 1961, setting down with the Concertgebouw Orchestra a very fine account of Symphony No 4.  During early 1964, he set down a still highly regarded recording of Symphony No 1, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra captured in the equally legendary acoustics of Kingsway Hall.

It was there in Kingsway Hall on 21, 23-26 May1966, that the London Symphony Orchestra assembled again for this classic recording of Symphony No 2.  They were joined by two first-class soloists, Heather Harper and Helen Watts, and by the London Symphony Chorus, who during these sessions were involved in their first ever recording.  In his memoirs, Putting the Record Straight,  John Culshaw, one of the most well-known of Decca’s producers, tells how he excused himself from producing these sessions due to his being ‘antipathetic to Mahler’, with the result that David Harvey assumed the producer’s role, with Gordon Parry as engineer.

The very opening of the first movement gives more than a hint of what’s to come.  Never before on disc has that writing for the cellos erupted with such force, feral and primeval strength.  And yet it would wrong to judge the whole by the initial outburst.  Solti does indeed keep a tight rein on ensemble and yet the results are not the anodyne perfection one comes across in some more recent recordings.  Nor is there any shortage of warmth and tenderness between the more driven and relentless episodes, especially those in the first and last movements.  The second and third movements are not short of the occasional baring of teeth as a contrast to the lighter moods.

Urlicht as sung by Helen Watts is utterly wonderful, and she is superbly supported by Solti.  She is the ideal precursor to the final movement, too, with its almost heart-stopping ascending motifs, a Resurrection indeed,  and Heather Harper, and the LSO Chorus making their recorded debut are equally impressive.  It is only in the very last section where the temperature drops and tension slackens;  listen to Bruno Walter, or Otto Klemperer (also from Kingsway Hall) where the organ underpins the conclusion with much more success.

The transfer from a 15ips commercial reel produces some stunningly realistic sounds and the Decca recording remains really impressive, and the sound quality, auditioned via DSD64 files, retains the flavour of an analogue recording.

Solti’s thrilling well-shaped reading continues to excite and inspire.

—Peter Joelson

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