Mahler: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" (CD review)

Kate Royal, Magdalena Kozena, Rundfunkchor Berlin; Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. EMI 50999 6 47363 2 7 (2-disc set).

During Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler's lifetime (1860-1911), his Symphony No. 2 was one of his most-popular works. These days, I suspect that claim goes to his shorter symphonies, the First or the Fourth, at least judging by the number of recordings one finds of them. Be that as it may, one can find much to admire in the Second Symphony (1895), which Mahler dubbed the "Resurrection."

I mentioned a while back that conductor Bernard Haitink, a noted Mahlerian, once said if one played Mahler's music straight, without much personal embellishment, there was enough drama for the music to speak for itself. That's not exactly the way Sir Simon Rattle seems to view it in this, his second, recording of the "Resurrection," with all of his Berlin players appearing to go more in the direction of sheer beauty than serious drama in the work. It's been a while since I last heard Rattle's older recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but I remember it sounding more vital than this new one with the Berlin Philharmonic.

As was common with the composer, Mahler was toying with notions of life and death in the Second Symphony, in particular advancing his beliefs on the joys of the next life, after resurrection. The Second Symphony is a long work, even by Mahler's standards, and here under Rattle it comes out at a little over eighty-six minutes, necessitating a second disc. Well, Mahler took over half a dozen years to write the work, off and on, so maybe we shouldn't hold it against a conductor who wants to take his time as well.

A long funeral march makes up the first movement, a march not unknown to Mahler symphonies. The composer said of it that he was laying to rest the hero of his First Symphony and asking the question, What's next? Critics trying to make connections among Mahler's symphonies often conclude that all nine (or ten or eleven) Mahler symphonies form one big, continuous whole. In any case, under Rattle the funeral procession is longer and slower than usual, particularly at the beginning, but when the conductor reaches the middle portion, the music opens up considerably. This first movement clocks at over twenty-four minutes and occupies the entire first disc.

There is no question that Rattle's way with the music is flattering to its lyrical virtues, but I thought it missed some of its Wagnerian grandness. Mahler once famously remarked that his symphony "must be like the world, it must contain everything." Later, he said the symphony must "make full use of the expressive possibilities that were won for music by Wagner." I'm not sure Rattle takes Mahler at his word. By the end of this Allegro maestoso, you kind of feel as though you'd walked more than a few miles in a funeral procession yourself. I can't say it inspired me the way I recall Rattle's earlier version did.

Things seem more normal for Rattle in the second and third movements, with speeds and contrasts closer to what I enjoy. Of the slow Andante (in landler form, a dance precursor to the waltz), the composer said it represented memories of happy times in the hero's life, yet it seems somewhat at odds with the rest of the music. Rattle gives it a pleasant lilt before moving into the Scherzo-like third movement, one of Mahler's typically sarcastic waltzes, sounding like parody or burlesque, apparently mocking Man's aspirations in life. Here, Rattle provides an enlivening bounce. Then, in the brief, quiet fourth movement, Urlicht, Mahler inserts one of the Wunderhorn poems he so loved, and it acts as a sweet, calm transition into the massive, semi-choral Finale.

The work ends in a glorious last judgment and resurrection, or, as Mahler put it, "I shall die, so as to live." Rattle seems most at home in this closing segment. He finally has a chance to abandon beauty for beauty's sake and go for the jugular. Although he still appears to put too much emphasis on creating poetic contrasts (the heavenly choir is barely audible at times, it's so soft), at least he never neglects the inherent melodrama of Mahler's religious intentions.

Be this as it may and despite some glorious moments from the Berlin Philharmonic, who play magnificently, Rattle's performance in general left me less moved than other conductors have, including, as I say, Rattle himself in his previous EMI rendition.

Recorded in concert at the Philharmonie, Berlin, in 2010, the sound is first row, if not quite first drawer. There is adequate clarity and body to the sonics at the expense of much resonant bloom or orchestral depth. The dynamic range and impact seem a bit held back, in spite of the closeness of the microphones, at least until the finale where the dynamics practically run wild. As it goes along, one notices a certain dullness to the sound, too, a minor veiling of the highs especially. For a sonic comparison, I put on Otto Klemperer's EMI disc from fifty years earlier and found it far more transparent and realistic. So much for technological advances in audio.

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.

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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