It’s satisfying to see a few SACDs continuing to come our way from Sony/BMG. This one is the second release in the new series undertaken by the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra of all the Mahler Symphonies – Mahler’s First launched the new series earlier this year, and the cycle will be completed in 2010. All the recordings will be made in live performance, similar to the SACD series of the London Philharmonic, London Symphony, Concertgebouw, Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. Mahler’s friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner described the Second as a “true higher resolution” of the First Symphony. Well, there you have it – she was being prophetic of SACD!
The series is up against quite a bit of competition in Mahler cycles on SACD, and even more including the standard CDs. But on the strength of these first two entries it should certainly hold its own. (It’s easy to understand why the orchestral complexities of Mahler, plus his popularity with concertgoers, has resulted in so many SACD versions.) My personal favorite is the Gilbert Kaplan recording of the Second with the Vienna Philharmonic on a DGG SACD set (it’s the only one he conducts). Both it and the SF Symphony’s Second with Tilson Thomas may have more drama and visceral excitement in the big climaxes, but the Swiss forces do a finely-honed and balanced reading. I could think of it as the touch of a fine sauce on the repast of Mahler, similar to Swiss cuisine. I don’t believe any other version has entranced me more fully in the last two movements’ vocal and choral sections. When the contralto ever so quietly enters in the Urlicht fourth movement, the soaring melody in the hushed hall seems to open a visionary heaven to the listener. The surround reproduction is superb in both such extremely low level portions and the gargantuan climaxes. Both singers possess lovely voices and the general performance reflects Zinman’s over 40 years experience with Mahler’s music. (By the way, this is evidently a two-discs-at-reduced-price offering; some of the other Mahler Second SACDs are around $30.)
– John Sunier