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

Heidi Grant Murphy and Petra Lang, soloists; Andrew Litton, Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Delos DE 3237 (2 CDs).

Mahler's Second Symphony "Resurrection" was his first really massive work, not only long but incorporating the talents of a large orchestra, soloists, and chorus. Such size became his eventual trademark, the quintessential "big, Mahler symphony." In order for any new recording to do it justice, the performance must stand up to at least two towering predecessors, those of Otto Klemperer and Sir Simon Rattle, both on EMI. Klemperer imparted a feeling of monumental grandeur to Man's triumph over death, while Rattle provided an even greater sense of spirituality in the process. Andrew Litton does not ascend these lofty peaks without the difficulty of comparison; he comes off second best.

For me, Litton is in trouble from the beginning. He takes the opening Allegro, a signature funeral march for Mahler, much too slowly. Certainly, a funeral dirge should be solemn, but it should never drag. This one dawdles along at what seems an interminable pace without much recourse to any punctuation of lines; there is little sense of drama or scope in the reading of this initial movement. Then things improve. Litton gives the three middle sections a more affecting treatment, never mind that the second segment, a Landler or slow waltz, as Mahler wrote it seems worlds apart from the rest of the work's symphonic content. The soloist performs well in the fourth movement, the famous "Urlicht" song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The major letdown, however, is in the finale, which has nothing like the elation and exaltation it demands. Rather, Litton just seems to let the music fall as notes from a page; it's not lifeless but not exhilarating, either, in spite of a full chorus, soloists, and organ thundering behind the orchestra. 

Andrew Litton
Delos present the symphony with their Virtual Reality processing, whereby the music was originally recorded in multiple channels and mixed down into two for playback either on regular two-channel stereo equipment or in various multichannel formats like Dolby Pro Logic. I did not try it in surround mode as my multichannel home theater system is not really up to the musical standards of my separate stereo music system. I rather suspect, though, that some of the sound's thicker qualities in regular playback are due to its abundance of multiple resonances.

Anyway, Delos recorded the symphony live at the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall of the Morton H. Myerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas in September 1998. The sound they obtained is quite natural in frequency response and smooth in all extremes, but it lacks the overall clarity of the much older Klemperer disc I've mentioned. The chorus in the finale of the Delos, for example, sounds like a soft blur. Like many recordings of the Second, this one is spread out over two discs, with the first movement on disc one. (Klemperer is complete on one disc, another point in his favor.) But the turnover is not as inconvenient as one may think, considering that Mahler himself recommended a five-minute break at this point. Delos offer an unusually high number of tracking points within each movement, especially helpful in a work so long.

Surely, the peoplel at Delos were aiming for spectacle with their Virtual Reality recordings, and just as surely they achieved it. They have also offered some of their things on DVD, although I have not heard their fully discrete discs in the multichannel medium.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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