MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in d; Symphony No. 5 – Marjana Lipovsek, mezzo-sop./ Vienna Children’s Chorus/ Women of the Vienna Chorus/ Bavarian State Orch./ Zubin Mehta – Farao Classics Blu-ray

MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in d; Symphony No. 5 – Marjana Lipovsek, mezzo-sop./ Vienna Children’s Chorus/ Women of the Vienna Chorus/ Bavarian State Orch./ Zubin Mehta – Farao Classics multichannel Pure Audio Blu-ray A 108087, 2:52:07 [Distr. by Naxos] ****1/2:

Mahler’s programmatic wonder—Symphony No. 3—has always occupied a somewhat “mystical” place in his canon; despite the obviously tone poem-like origins of the work, where he was unable to come to grips with the massiveness of his own creation without resorting to some sort of extra-musical connotations, in the end he completely abandoned the idea of attaching any kind of storyline to the music. What made him decide this? All rhetorical I know, but are these descriptions–“Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”, “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”, “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”, “What Man Tells Me”, “What the Angels Tell Me”, “What Love Tells Me” — integral to our understanding of the work? And a seventh movement, “Heavenly life”, or “What the Child Tells Me” was also contemplated, but dropped in favor of appending it to his Symphony No. 4. The fact is that none of this is pertinent, and Mahler himself dropped them before the work was published, as he did for the whole of the first four symphonies. Yet there is no doubt that the written word was a primary source of inspiration to him as he slowly worked his way to a “purer” musical abstraction which he succeeded in presenting in his middle symphonies.

Ultimately even if he had left them in I doubt it would have made an ounce of difference—though we might know what the words mean, it is the music which carries us away, and even in this sprawling piece the threads that hold it together manifest themselves unconsciously. There is a remarkable consistency in Mahler’s sound world that haunts every moment of No. 3, and where many conductors fail is exactly in this subtle yet essential ability to realize the relatedness of Mahler’s conception—it’s too easy to take each movement simply “as it comes”, especially since they are so long individually. Mehta, a conductor with much Mahlerian expertise, though not always convincing (his acclaimed Second Symphony for Decca many years ago never convinced me) has the perfect mindset when approaching this work, and achieves what is certainly the finest recent interpretation of this piece, worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with Bernstein’s Sony and DGG recordings, Tilson Thomas with his San Francisco orchestra, and the little-known but highly-regarded Chicago Symphony recording in one of their special sets with Jean Martinon. What they don’t have is this absolutely brilliant surround sound, so pliable and radiantly sensitive that the often murky lower passages come across with a serenely perceptible and gorgeously blended ambiance that has to be heard to be believed. This is a truly magnificent recording.

The Fifth, Mahler’s first excursion into a non-vocal symphonic medium (the First Symphony was Wunderhorn-inspired) is also one of his most obviously communicative. It didn’t start out that way, and one would never guess by the opening funeral fanfare of the joyous and loving emotions he will drag us through in order to get to the triumphant ending. By and large Mehta is consistent and impressive in the outer movements. But the heart of the work, and its literal center, the Scherzo, is taken somewhat too cautiously, manicured and beautifully played, saturated with the burnished and color-thick textures of the Bavarians as on everything here, but I feel a structural letdown, as if the conductor was trying not to overplay it lest he destroy the balance among the movements. It doesn’t unjustly affect the excellent of the whole performance, but keeps it out of first place, even though the sound is certainly stellar!

And what is first place? Tough one. Bernstein and Vienna come across to me as the best overall performance on record, but in the high-end audio world we have to consider Abbado on DGG, Tilson Thomas (SFM), and Gergiev (LSO Live), the last particularly effective. But I don’t want to sell Mehta short, and this package is truly outstanding.

—Steven Ritter

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