MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in c minor – Kate Royal, soprano/ Magdalena Kozena, mezzo-soprano/ Berlin Radio Chorus/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Simon Rattle, conductor – EMI 6 47363 2 (2 CDs), 86:23 ****1/2:
I wanted to give this recording five stars, but conscience would just not allow it. The first go round with this symphony and Rattle, at Birmingham ages ago, never sat well with me. It was too contrived, too interpreted, and too lauded—I mean, nothing could be that good, and as it turns out it wasn’t, though the British critics hailed him as the second coming of Thomas Beecham. Since then his subsequent Mahler productions have left me cold, fearing that he simply didn’t have enough Mahlerian blood in him to make a creditable recording.
One of his first remakes with the Berlin PO was the Tenth. Now, I always kind of liked his way with that symphony, strangely enough, and I found his thoughts with the Berlin orchestra even more persuasive. “Aha!” I thought. “Rattle is going to evolve at last, and maybe there is some great Mahler in him after all.” Alas, it was not to be; every succeeding release disappointed me.
Now he revisits No. 2, and I was so hopeful that some of the things that irked me the first time would be gone, like the penchant for taking the opening 16th-note upward scale at a tempo and taking a true accelerando after that would be followed, instead of artificially taking the first few notes of the upward passage slower so that the illusion would be of an accelerando. It’s a small point, but I think an important one as it can indicate a conductor’s view of the efficacy of what Mahler really wanted. Rattle still tries to make too many points, like sudden huge slowings of the tempo. What feels natural in a Bernstein recording feels willful with Rattle.
But there is something new, some kind of sincerity in this recording that I don’t find in the others, as if he is saying, “okay, I don’t have all the answers and this is the best I can come up with” instead of leading the charge as the young wunderkind infused with musical knowledge from the gods. I think he actually loves this music now, when before it was as if he was trying to conquer it. A good example is the slower than usual tempo of the opening march in the first movement; just when you think it cannot sustain interest and is going to fall apart, Rattle’s uncanny knack for phrasing kicks in and he is able to coax his brilliant orchestra into giving that extra push that holds the line and keeps us involved.
The other movements are quite expertly conducted, and I must say that the choral finale is one of the most exciting I have heard, with lots of visceral impact. The orchestra is the real star here, and comes through with the power and sheen that one always associates with the Berliners. Kate Royal and Magdalena Kozena are a perfect pairing in their relatively minor roles, the latter especially radiant in Urlicht. This is a two-disc set, with the first movement on disc one alone so that you can observe Mahler’s suggested five-minute break before the second if you want to—good luck with that.
So despite the quirkiness, the aberrations, the miscues and misunderstandings, Rattle managed to sell me on his vision of the work even if I know deep down he is wrong. Sincerity goes a long way when interpreting classical music, especially Mahler. And that orchestra, and that amazing EMI sound…you have never heard timpani in a Mahler symphony like here. Good stuff.
— Steven Ritter
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