MAHLER: The Symphonies (Complete) + DVD Bonus – Soloists/4 choirs/ Tonhalle Orch. Zurich/ David Zinman – RCA Red Seal (15 discs + 1DVD)

by | Jul 20, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

MAHLER: The Symphonies (Complete) + DVD Bonus: Going Against Fate, a film by Viviane Blumenschein about David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich – Juliane Banse, soprano/ Anna Larsson, contralto/ Birgit Remmert, contralto/ Luba Orgonasova, soprano/ Melanie Diener, soprano/ Lisa Larsson, soprano/ Yvonne Naef, contralto/ Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor/ Stephen Powell, baritone/ Askar Abdrazakov, bass/ Alfred Muff, bass/ Schweizer Kammerchor/ Zurcher Sangerknaben/ WDR Rundfunkchor Koln/ Kinderchor Kaltbrunn/ Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/ David Zinman, conductor – RCA Red Seal multichannel SACD 4.0 88697 72723 (15 discs + 1 DVD), 17+ hours ****:
When editor Sunier informed me that one of his recordings of these symphonies was missing the middle channel I went back and did a double take, and sure enough, all of these recordings are simply 4.0 quadraphonic surround sound. They will fool you—the sound is generally recorded somewhat at a distance which allows the sonic wash to effectively fill in the middle area, but they also lack the complete presence found on the MTT SF set. I think it is the middle channel that is doing this.
RCA has been releasing these discs for some time now, and chose David Zinman and his rejuvenated Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich to do the honors. Actually Zinman, unbeknownst to most, is a long time Mahler advocate and fan, and has put no little thought into each of these works. This is not a Bernstein set—there will be variances in performance quality and interpretative finesse. Its main SACD competitor is the aforementioned San Francisco collection, highly-praised in most places for uniformity of quality and sound. But it is also much cheaper than you would think a SACD set would be, clocking in at around $100 for 15 discs on some Internet sites. The SFS set, in contrast, is not currently available as a set except for some strange reason as an import, at a low, low $399. What to do, what to do…but I think I can say with some authority that the diehard Mahler fan will not be satisfied with only these recordings from Zinman—there are just too many great recordings out there that one must hear. Yet—and it is a big one—the price/quality grid is surprisingly high for this set, and I also believe that confirmed Mahler addicts will enjoy adding this to their collection as well. Novices, quite frankly, especially those who must have audiophile sound can do no better than grab this.
Just for reference, let me send you to the reviews done on this website of this series: No. 1;    No. 2No. 3No. 4No. 5No. 7 . We have not reviewed the others.
Symphony No. 1 is good and solid, complete with the “Blumine” as an appendix (Mahler ultimately rejected it, rightly so), but the ending was a letdown for me. However, after Bernstein’s hell-bent-for-leather Concertgebouw recording (DGG) most all of them have been letdowns for me, though I still appreciate Andrew Litton’s early CD recording with the Bournemouth Symphony on Virgin. And Tilson Thomas does a very creditable job as well, his San Franciscans really evolving into a first rate Mahler orchestra, not too suave but maintaining fine ensemble and technique. For Super Audio I still think the Tonkunstler-Orchester Niederosterreich I recently reviewed here on Preiser is about the best audiophile bet going. But Zinman is respectable.
Symphony No. 2 opens a real can of worms, and though Zinman is again respectable, and the choral finale sounds wonderful, my bets stay hedged with the recent Chicago Symphony reading with Haitink. My review covers the other SACDs available. “Lean” is a word that can be applied to this whole set, and it refers not to sound but to interpretative nuance—there is no exaggeration here, and a strict constructionist vision of the score seems to apply everywhere.
Many conductors who have problems with the other symphonies seem to be able to pull off the Third. Perhaps it is because it is more episodic than the others, sort of a like a series of smaller tone poems. Whatever the reason, Zinman is superb here. His hands-off approach allows the inherent lyricism of this music to soar, and this is about as good as the Third gets in Super Audio, though one of our reviewers praised the Zdenek Macal recording to the skies. And of course, one cannot overlook the marvelous James Levine recording on RCA, Jean Martinon in the Chicago Symphony boxed set, or the old Haitink, newly-remastered. But this could well serve as an only recording.
The perennial favorite No. 4 faces supremely stiff competition, and this one doesn’t quite measure up. It doesn’t take a lot of listening—Szell/Cleveland, Solti/Chicago, Abbado (Blu-ray), Fischer/Budapest, Tilson Thomas/SFS, or the recent incandescent Haitink/ Concertgebouw to hear what is missing in this recording.  John Nemaric, in his review, really sums it up best: “My feeling is that there is no commitment, nor is there any passion on the part of the conductor to infuse any kind of “joy” into Mahler’s most joyous, sunny and Viennese of all his compositions – it’s just a boring performance.” Amen to that John—Zinman is lost in this one.
In his review, Peter Joelson speaks of the “clear air” that Zinman brings to this performance of the Fifth Symphony, and it does have a breezy sort of clarity that is often overlooked by those who feel that they have to find profundity in every bar. Borrowing the quick funeral motive that appears in the Fourth Symphony, Mahler launches into the beginning of this work by expanding it and developing the angst factor almost as a red herring; in other words, if a conductor takes this movement too seriously he is going to have a tough time justifying the last one. Gradually light sets in and the whole becomes one of the most optimistic pieces Mahler ever wrote, the first movement trumpet salvos the death of pessimism instead of optimism.  Zinman is able to steer a course that emphasizes the ultimate victory of the human spirit over adversity, and Mahler’s superb storyline is given sans clutter and barnacles in a performance of great vision.
It is precisely the lack of this vision that shows itself in the reading of the “Tragic” Sixth Symphony, a title that Mahler gave the work himself. But here, despite a radiant Andante (given as the second movement) and a wonderfully apt Scherzo, the opening movement is too sluggish and indecisive while the finale staggers under its own weight of indecision and lack of connectedness. Bernstein knew this work very well, Barbirolli might have given us the definitive version, and Tilson Thomas gives a very fine account. But it is quite possibly Gergiev who owns the most persuasive SACD account, something that surprises me as I don’t think he generally has much of a feel for the composer. The point is: this reading will not be sufficient as your only Mahler Six.
Sanity, even high accomplishment returns with the Seventh. Bernstein’s 1960s Columbia recording proved to the world that this work was every bit as exciting and expert as the other symphonies, and his recording still stands as a benchmark. But Tilson Thomas seemed to inherit the gift and has given us several great recordings. My favorite is perhaps the Chicago Symphony Collection recording with Jean Martinon, a surprise if ever there was one, but a great reading, perfectly paced. Zinman’s can be added to this distinct group as a model of clarity and color, the orchestra playing just superbly. I think that Tilson Thomas is still the best in the audio sweepstakes, but this one is very close.
The so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” is another one of Mahler’s that seems to respond well to conductors who don’t do much Mahler. Even Robert Shaw tried it to great success (his live concert I caught in Atlanta years ago and it was simply unbelievable). Colin Davis, who recorded it and the Fourth, gave a very fine reading also on RCA with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in early SACD, very convincing indeed. Gergiev, whose Mahler usually irritates the you-know-what out of me, also is stunningly successful in this music, maybe the best going in modern versions, though as Patrick Lam points out in his review there are some sonic issues with the St. Paul’s Cathedral recording location. But I think most people will consider the new Tilson Thomas to be the very best both in interpretation and in sound, though darn it if that old Solti/Chicago recording done in Vienna doesn’t still stubbornly hang in there. But Zinman and forces, with the exception of the very last page, gives us a visceral and brilliant Eighth that can rank with any of them. His soloists are all characterful and distinct, the orchestra plays very well, and the choir is a bold and exciting as any you could ask for. But then…
Okay, for some people this might not be a big deal. But as lovers of this piece know, the trumpets have a three-note motive in the last bars that goes from (I believe) an E-flat to a B-flat and then a huge leap up to a high C—and here, despite symphony after symphony of outstanding playing, they cannot hold the note, making the first one sound like a lower mordent, and the second very weak and barely hanging at all. I just can’t believe that the producers—well the heck with them, how about Zinman?—let this go without a retake. It ruins it for me, but if you can take it you will be getting an outstanding performance on all other counts. But this is indicative of shoddy production values, not characteristic of the other recordings here, so I just don’t get it.
The Ninth, for some the last Mahler symphony, strangely enough, seems to have more good recordings than bad ones. You might think that this work is an interpretative bear or that only a few chosen acolytes can penetrate its secrets, but Mahler is actually pretty straightforward about the whole thing. His health, weariness over life, pain over loss and separation, a small hint of heaven, and even his heartbeat are captured in this piece, and whether one takes a really pulled apart reading like Bernstein, a superbly balanced and affecting run like Karajan, or this clean and elegantly emotive reading from Zinman, one does very well when all is said and done. Okay, Bernstein/Berlin, the famous DGG live recording where the trombones fail to make an entrance, does have the most exciting scherzo, and you won’t hear that fervency on this recording. But otherwise I find it quite moving and substantially redolent of the best recordings out there. Abbado’s recent DGG does have some very affecting playing, and I think that what he went through health-wise shows up in his reading, but Zinman holds his own and gives no quarter to anyone. A fine effort all around, if not the very greatest.
The Tenth is where the arguments start. At the end of the piece, Mahler notes in the score “you alone know what it means”, directing this comment to the faithless Alma, who was seeing another fellow at the time. Alma of course, ultimately released the score to be “worked” on by a number of contributors, especially Derek Cooke. Mahler himself had asked that the score be destroyed, but that would have been a mistake. Though there are whole passages where nothing shows up on the page except staff lines, and much real composing has to be done, this will always remain a real “what if” kind of piece, with the exception of the opening Adagio and the Purgatorio movement. But the echoes of genuine Mahler redound from every page, and this symphony, taking its cue from the ending of the ninth, shows us where the composer was heading, and it is a very modern vision indeed. Mahler is beginning to feel constrained by the number of notes he has to work with, and sometimes seems to struggle with making his sentiments known, adding chord upon chord and note upon note in a desperate search for meaning. Zinman has always performed the work, preferring the Cooke version, as do most others, but for this recording he opted for the American Clinton Carpenter, who lived with the work for many years, and subjectively borrowed some passages from the other symphonies which results in a much more characteristically “Mahler” sound than many of the others.
Carpenter has been recorded only two other times as far as I know, by Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony on Delos, and that one is fine, along with Harold Farberman and the Philharmonia Hungaria. This one is equal to the Litton however, and we really have nothing to complain about if this version is the one that rings your bell. I think I will always prefer Ormandy’s groundbreaking early ‘60s reading of the Cooke version, and I also have a taste for the Remo Mazzetti version on Telarc with the Cincinnati Symphony, though he preferred Joseph Wheeler’s version as the closest to a true Mahlerian sound. But no one will be unhappy with what Zinman and forces have accomplished here.
The booklet that accompanies this release is superb with excellent notes, rounding out a very tempting production. Gergiev is to my mind simply not attuned to this music enough to recommend his complete set, when it is finished (number Nine still to come). Abbado has been scoring high points in his ongoing DVD efforts, and they are strong indeed. Only Tilson Thomas offers real competition in the SACD contest, and it is formidable; but for some who want great sound (though not quite up to the Thomas, generally speaking) and want to afford food also, this set might prove just the thing, and it definitely moves the Zurich orchestra into the ranks of a bona fide Mahler ensemble.
The DVD that comes with this box is a wonderfully-produced and beautifully filmed documentary of the recording and performance of the Sixth symphony. I found it quite engrossing and a real standard as to how films of this type should be done. It makes a substantial addition to this set, and elevates its desirability. [And also increases the viewer’s interest in hearing this one, often the least-liked of Mahler’s symphonies…Ed.]
— Steven Ritter

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