MAHLER: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” – Simona Saturova, soprano/ Yvonne Naef, mezzo-soprano/ Philadelphia Singers Chorale/ Philadelphia Orchestra/ Christoph Eschenbach, conductor – Ondine

by | Feb 24, 2009 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

MAHLER: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” – Simona Saturova, soprano/ Yvonne Naef, mezzo-soprano/ Philadelphia Singers Chorale/ Philadelphia Orchestra/ Christoph Eschenbach, conductor – Ondine 1134-2D (2 discs), 87:31 [Distrib. by Universal]  **1/2:

I cannot believe, after what has to be considered a long line of sterling successes, that Ondine has released this new Philadelphia recording in standard digital only instead of SACD. One of the glories of this series was hearing the remarkable acoustical spread of the Kimmel Center, showing that the orchestra (despite the silly rankings of a recent Gramophone Magazine article) is in splendid form and capable of creating some stunningly beautiful sounds. Hearing it in two dimensions is a little disappointing, and I don’t think that the Philly has been caught at their best, at least not according to what is emanating from my speakers.

Part of this may be the fault of conductor Eschenbach, who, despite a remarkable Sixth a while back, seems completely at sea in this one. From the very opening, where he imitates the Simon Rattle penchant for starting the sixteenth-note upward run slowly in order to make the accelerando sound properly (and not what Mahler wanted, never indicating a slow-down first, but instead a rushed flurry to the top of the scale), the first movement is torn with overblown ritards and too-emphasized phrase beginnings. The pulse is torn apart completely, and the conductor tends to treat the various sections (and there are a lot of them, to be fair) as individual tone poems instead of a part of a unified whole. There is no energy, no propulsion, and no sense of where to take the music. Even the orchestra seems confused by it all.

The second movement is far too slow and disjointed, lacking any sort of “pleasant memories” that Mahler’s text asks for in a 1901 program. The third movement is not bad, but even here there are too many tempo confusions, and overemphasis on parts of the music that simply don’t need it. Bernstein, who was a master of this symphony, engaged in this sort of activity also, but he knew how and when to do it, always making sure that Mahler was serviced first, whereas Eschenbach seems completely self-indulgent to his own aberrant conception of the piece.

“Urlicht” proves the exception—this is as finely sung and lovingly shaped as any I can recall, with the mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef supplely supplying a carefully studied and meaningful interpretation to this short yet vital interlude in the work. When at last the final movement arrives, the entrance of the chorus is moving yet not convincing, even though Eschenbach manages to keep the phrasing correct by holding the chorus over to subsequent phrases, whereas in so many recordings they simply give up. But by then too many disappointments have rendered this normally thrilling ending merely irrefrangible, all hope gone.

The sound still retains a certain amount of depth and fine bass, though the spread is missing that we have become accustomed to. I can’t tell you what dire straits I found myself in after hearing this. There are many better SACD versions, including the Tilson Thomas and Ivan Fischer. I have not heard the Gergiev just reviewed here, but what I have heard so far of his Mahler leaves me cold and completely unimpressed. For regular CD, Bernstein’s New York recording still holds sway (and still sounds great), though there is a Cleveland tape in existence that I wish the Cleveland Orchestra would release of Bernstein’s one and only appearance with the orchestra at the Blossom Festival in 1970 that is simply fabulous. The Levi recording with the Atlanta Symphony is one of the best sounding I have ever heard, the chorus in the last movement simply astounding. Others might look to Klemperer or Rattle, wayward as that last one can be. But don’t look here, and it hurts me to say it.

— Steven Ritter

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