The latest in the RCO Live SACD series was recorded live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in August and September last year, and the Henze work – which receives here its world premiere recording – was recorded in December. The Mahler Sixth made a major departure from his earlier five symphonies in eschewing a conclusion with a positive feeling to it. It is some of his darkest and most tragic music, with little of his usual lighter quotations and parodies. Mahler imagined its half-hour-plus Finale – which really puts the listener thru the wringer – as a story in which the hero is assaulted by “three hammer-blows of fate – the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.” All this makes the symphony one of the most difficult of Mahler’s works to get into.
I usually compare new hi-res surround Mahler symphony recordings to my standard: the San Francisco Symphony SACD series. That is, if the particular work has come out as yet in the series, and this one had. I realized I was therefore pitting the problematic acoustics of San Francisco’s Davies Hall against the tremendous reputation of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. So how does shootout come down? Amazingly similar. The one very major difference is that Jansons reverses the usual order of the two central movements – playing the Andante right after the first movement, with the shorter Scherzo movement following. Otherwise I could find little difference in the approach of the two conductors, the sound of the orchestras, or the preservation of the ambiance of the venues. All the RCO SACDs have had a gorgeously-wide and deep soundstage and rich sonics, but so does the SF recording. The white-hot performance by the San Francisco Symphony might be due to the performances and live recording sessions having taken place during the difficult time of September 12 – 15, 2001.
It might be the attraction of the Henze filler work which tips the scale here in favor of the RCO set. It is a fitting work to match the elegiac mood of the Mahler – full of shadowy, tragic mods. Henze based the under-quarter-hour work on a poem about nocturnal dream images from childhood. They include angels and a mortuary, and the composer was also thinking of melancholy pseudo-religious local scenes he remembered from the time he had lived in Salzburg, Austria. Henze uses the full orchestral forces in a sometimes brash manner, just as Mahler did. He describes having “forms come and go” in portraying the mood of the dreams, and the piece makes “light and darkness collide polyphonically.” It concludes with a very final-sounding big thump that’s clearly Henze’s version of Mahler’s hammer-blow!
– John Sunier