MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor – New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
Testament SBT 1451, 74:42 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
The BBC broadcast of 16 August 1967 from Royal Albert Hall, London features Sir John Barbirolli’s lyrically rapt performance of the A Minor Symphony (1905) of Mahler. Barbirolli (1899-1970) came late to Mahler’s music, and to the Sixth for the first time in 1965. Barbirolli rejected the long-held arrangement of the movements of the symphony, placing the Andante directly after the first movement, in accordance with Mahler’s own preference, in 1906, when he inserted an “erratum” note to switch the order of the middle movements. The explosive march of the opening Allegro energico manipulates the A Major triad and the A Minor modality in free modulation, and the C Minor chorale (“Alma’s theme”) rises in wrenching prominences to provide some palliative in the midst of the strife here on earth. Barbirolli’s intensity and sensitivity–sans repeat–captures the convulsive yearning that permeates the music, tympani and trumpets in blazing, often contrapuntal configurations.
The E-flat Andante moderato emerges at the ten-bar outset as an anodyne to the agonies of desire and dark flight. A marvelous love-duet evolves, delicately scored as the opening movement waxed massive. Horn and harp, colored clarinets, and silken strings expound an idyll rife with bucolic pre-Lapsarian nostalgia. The transparency of impassioned sound the New Philharmonia Orchestra projects qualifies this account for a high place in Mahler annals. The A Minor Scherzo, however, reverts to the sarcastic type of Mahler’s martial irony, opening with ¾ and ¾ and 4/8 metrics that invoke the erratic tempi of children’s games, but overseen by the Grim Reaper. The first movement march here fuses with slickly abrasive allusions from the Strauss opera Salome into its tapestry, the lovers’ ecstasies of the Andante movement now proffering Mahler’s head on a silver salver. Even with these vitriolic images at hand, Barbirolli finds moments of tender sympathy in the midst of the dreadfully manic or cloying cynicism.
The mystical C Minor chords propel a monolithic last movement in extended sonata-form, although much of its energy in moving to A Minor–via a tuba theme–suffers a kind of entropy, enervated and listless, but marked by a tympani tattoo and harp figurations. Eddies of martial figures coalesce to rebuild–in C Minor–the often torrential power of this contrapuntal music whose sheer variety of sounds quite mesmerizes the imagination. Barbirolli’s exquisitely molded performance remains riveting throughout the divergent moods and labyrinths this frenzied music projects, the hammer-blows of fate an inevitable consequence, according to Mahler, of the five symphonies that precede it. A performance that makes us reckon Barbirolli as among the great Mahler votaries.