Mahler: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Also R. Strauss:  Metamorphosen.  Sir John Barbirolli, New Philharmonia Orchestra.  EMI 50999 2 12963 2 (2-disc set).

Here's another classic that the folks at EMI have remastered in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series. I'm not sure this 1967 recording from Sir John Barbirolli is actually a "Great Recording of the Century," given that it presents a highly idiosyncratic view of Mahler's Sixth Symphony, but who am I to argue. I know I've always liked the interpretation, whether it's pure Mahler or not.

Establishing its tone in the first moments, Barbirolli offers a performance of lingering contemplation from the very start, the conductor lovingly dwelling on and sustaining Mahler's dark, tragic, often grotesque moods. It is not a reading I could recommend without caution, yet it is one I would not personally want anywhere but at the top of my own personal list. For the not-so-adventurous listener, there are still good performances from Haitink (Philips), Abbado (DG), Szell (Sony), Solti (Decca), Bernstein (Sony), Horenstein (Unicorn), Tennstedt (EMI), Karajan (DG), and others, with their more-conventional, but for me ultimately less-involving, styles.

Anyway, Barbirolli offers up a vision of Mahler that is quite broad, appropriately ambiguous, a little goofy in the Scherzo, lovely in the Andante (which comes as the second movement, according to Mahler's revised order), and filled with the conflicting moods of love and death, doom and gloom that Mahler enjoyed exploring.

Along with the Sixth Symphony we get Barbirolli's performance of Richard Strauss's "Study for 23 Solo Strings," called "Metamorphosen." Strauss wrote it at the end of World War II as a sort of elegy, the music sublimely suggesting--hoping--that something different, something changed for the better, would rise from the ashes of the horror.

EMI's sound could hardly be better. It is without doubt the best sound the Sixth Symphony and maybe even "Metamorphosen" have ever been afforded, better even than Haitink's fine digital release of Mahler. Coming from 1967, the middle of EMI's golden age of producers and engineers Bishop, Parker, Anderson, and Brown, the sonics are clean, well balanced, wide-ranging, and naturally transparent--a joy to listen to, and now made a touch smoother through EMI's Abbey Road technology. Of course, the clarity of the new medium makes Sir John's audible contributions all the more apparent--you'll hear him wheezing throughout the proceedings--but they are a minor distraction in an otherwise treasurable recording.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa