Mahler: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Simax Classics PSC 1316.

For all their sorrow, anguish, triumph, and heavenly revelations, I can't help getting the feeling there is less to Mahler's symphonies than meets the eye. Or ear. But there's no denying they're fun; something for everyone to interpret and discuss.

The Sixth Symphony (1904) of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), though, always seems more problematical to me than the others, a kind of black sheep--dark and depressing--of the family. I mean, the composer didn't initially call it "Tragic" for nothing. It was never popular in Mahler's time, and it really took someone like Leonard Bernstein in the early Sixties, wearing his heart on his sleeve, to help people finally notice it.
Coming second in Mahler's middle trio of purely orchestral symphonies, the Sixth tends sometimes to get lost in the mix. Or maybe it's that sorrowful outlook that puts listeners off, I don't know. In any case, conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and his Oslo Philharmonic provide a performance as Mahler originally envisioned it, with the Scherzo second and the final hammer blow intact. Whether the performance adheres to everyone's idea of how the work should flow or how well it explores Mahler's conflicting moods of love and death, doom and gloom, is up for grabs.

The opening Allegro energico is a huge march movement, perhaps a defiant funeral procession. Saraste handles this section in almost a fiercely aggressive manner, the headlong rhythms pounding on ever forward. In between the music's relentlessly agitated states, we find some brief respite in a pastoral scene that Mahler described as "the last greeting from earth to penetrate the remote solitude of the mountain peaks." Saraste negotiates the transitions well enough, although I really never felt the emotion of the "Alma" theme as much as I have with other conductors.

Saraste then places the Scherzo second, as Mahler had originally arranged things before changing his mind several times over. It's a somewhat raucous parody of the opening movement, and I find it too similar to the first movement to provide much contrast when placed directly behind it, especially the way Maestro Saraste deals with it. It sounds too much like a continuation of the first movement, making one very long section. There's no letup in the intensity, and Saraste never seems to exploit the movement's more bizarre elements to much advantage.

The lovely Andante is about as different in tone from the first two movements as you can get, yet Saraste seldom lingers long with any part of it or sentimentalizes it in any way. Still, I again didn't always feel the passions in the music. It comes across as too matter-of-fact to me.

The long closing Allegro moderato is almost like a separate work unto itself. It's here that Saraste is probably most effective in keeping the disparate elements together and not letting the recurring "fate" motifs overwhelm the proceedings. And, yes, as I said, he includes Mahler's third and final hammer blow.

The sound, recorded in a series of live concerts during March of 2010 in Oslo Konserthus, is slightly close, exhibiting some good orchestral depth. Oddly, however, the sound stage doesn't appear as wide as it should be at that distance, and it's also a tad bright, forward, lean, and sharp-edged, the bass coming alive mainly during the hammer blows. For what it's worth, the audience is commendably quiet most of the time, with only an occasional cough and wheeze in evidence and, thankfully, no ending applause.


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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa