Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3
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Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
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Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony still ranks today as one of the greatest and most powerful creations of the Late Romantic period. The huge symphony, longer and more monumental than the others and containing texts from the collection of poems by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim entitled "Des Knaben Wunderhorn", was composed over a period of four years from 1892 to 1896, and especially during the summers of 1895 and 1896, which Mahler spent at the Attersee in Austria. Following performances of several individual movements of the symphony, the complete work was premiered on June 9, 1902, at the 38th "Tonkünstler Festival" in Krefeld. Mahler conducted the Städtische Kapelle Krefeld and Cologne's Gürzenich Orchestra at this exciting event. It was one of his greatest successes, and his contemporaries were deeply impressed. Between 1902 and 1907, the composer conducted his Third Symphony a further 15 times. Of the six powerful movements, the slow fourth one requires not only a large orchestra but also a mezzo-soprano solo for a setting of the "Midnight Song" ("O Man! Take heed!") from Friedrich Nietzsche's poetical-philosophical "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," while in the cheerful fifth movement the mezzo-soprano soloist is joined by a children's choir and a female chorus for the song Es sungen drei Engel from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn". The symphony is a huge challenge for all its performers, and this concert recording of June 2016 has a prestigious line-up: guest conductor Bernard Haitink with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Augsburger Domsingknaben and the Frauenchor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; the solo parts are sung by Gerhild Romberger.
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I very much agree with another review given here: this new Mahler 3 with Bernard Haitink and the Bavarian Radio Symphony is extremely well recorded and executed in a highly idiomatic style. However, there is an issue with pricing. Even with shipping and handling, it can be less expensive to buy this from a British or European source. In England this is being treated as a 'twofer' (two discs for the price of one). Naxos USA is the source for BR Klassik in America, and they're treating it as a full price, two disc set. One wonders why since BR Klassik has ceased issuing front line releases, such as this one, on 5.1 sacd/cd hybrid discs (something I'm not terribly interested in, truthfully). But let's go back to the music.
As pointed out previously, a tad more propulsion is needed here and there. I find this particularly true before going into the coda of the first movement (last half of the second 'happy' march in major), as well as at the climax of the faster middle section of the scherzo (third movement). Both the coda of the first and third movements could use a bit more visceral impact from the percussion as well. The worst offense in that regard, is that the fortissimo tam-tam smash that caps the long trombone solo in the first movement is pretty much not there! (it's marked fortissimo, folks!). But that's most of the bad news. There are some very good things that counterbalance those minor complaints.
Chief among items on the plus side of the ledger is an outstanding offstage posthorn solo in the scherzo, albeit played a bit closer to the stage than usual. In addition, the whole performance is capped by what is perhaps THE most gorgeous brass chorale yet to have been captured on tape (near the end of the finale). Mezzo soprano Gerhild Romberger strikes me as being way under par in the Zarathustra song (fourth movement), but the orchestral accompaniment could hardly be more beautiful. And as in so many other cases, she sounds more comfortable - in terms of range and color - in the brief choral "bim, bam" movement that follows. I like that the "bim, bam" movement begins with tubular chimes, and not with deep bells that are so often times out-of-tune to the choir (real deep bells are the standard practice in Germany and Austria). Perhaps Haitink insisted upon that, since the Concertgebouw uses tubular chimes to this day in Mahler. And with such a fine rendition of the lovely slow finale that follows (and not too slow either), Haitink's newest Mahler 3 leaves a very strong impression. Comparisons, however, are difficult.
Haitink's original 1996 performance is now out of print, but used copies can be found (and I imagine the original vinyl LP's fetch some serious coin!). It boasts the excellent Maureen Forrester (contralto), and was coupled with Haitink's serviceable "Das Klagende Lied" . However, I feel that Haitink's best Mahler 3 representations are on dvd. The famous Kerstmatinee (Christmas matinee) concert from 1983 at the Concertgebouw, as well as his live Berlin Phil. video (dvd) from, I believe, the early '90s. Haitink also made a decent studio recording from Berlin (Philips), but the first movement was marred by a few but annoying missed entrances in the percussion (no doubt from miscounting so many measures of rest). On the whole, it was a bit perfunctory. A 'pirate' of a very good live performance with the Vienna Phil. captured at the Concertgebouw during the 2000 Mahler festival in Amsterdam, has been floating around for years. That might be the best of the lot, as the steep tiers of the Concertgebouw bring out the woodwinds of the Vienna Phil. a bit more than usual (and those horns!).
On top of all that is Haitink's Chicago Symphony recording of Mahler 3 from 2007. I find this Munich one preferable, as I've never been a big fan of James Mallinson produced recordings. There is more 'visceral impact' to the Chicago performance, but this Bavarian one is better recorded and captures a rustic element in Mahler that alludes the high octane Chicagoans (in the coda of the first movement, there's a clarinetist who blows so hard that his/her note goes way flat - it drives me insane). With sound quality figured into the mix, this new BR Klassik one may be the best compromise from Haitink.
Haitink has long been associated with Mahler, and I imagine that the third symphony must be among his favorites. But I recently picked up the entire Markus Stenz cycle (Oehms Classics) for not much more money than what this set sells for. Even though Stenz's Cologne based performances aren't anywhere as well recorded as this is, I greatly prefer his Mahler 3 as a performance. It not only has more propulsion throughout than with Haitink, Stenz has real interesting interpretive ideas as well. For example, at the coda of the first movement, Stenz brings out the incredible horn figures than nearly always get buried over, just by taking down the trumpets and timpani a few notches. It might not be the 'right' thing to do, but it sounds great.
For me - and purely as a matter of taste - my favorite Mahler 3 performances remain Bernstein's first Columbia one from N.Y.; Alan Gilbert/N.Y. Phil. (the best thing he ever did in New York, along with his Nielsen), and the mighty Manfred Honeck/Pittsburgh one on the Japanese Exton label. But this late Haitink entry will also be a 'keeper' for me.
Haitink is an artist who has both frustrated and delighted me in equal measure over pretty well 50 years. The frustration is with so many recordings that are exquisitely played under his direction-but that are unutterably dull as performances! The frustration is deepened by those performances which delight, frequently in unlikely repertoire (e.g Bartok, Stravinsky, Berg, Shostakovich).
Haitink himself has been aware of his tendency to being reliable but dull, as has been known to ask friends and colleagues after a performance “It wasn’t too Dutch was it?”
Haitink was one of the first into the lists in recording a Mahler Cycle post Bernstein, though he did not want to record the Eighth but was contractually obliged to, resulting in his article “The Tyranny of the Complete Cycle”.
His 1960s RCO set is still judged one of the finest available in many quarters, and the 3rd to be a highlight of the set.
Haitink’s second incomplete cycle was overall careful, beautiful –but dull despite the participation of the BPO. An exception was the Third, which is well observed, lively and still ranks as a decent choice in this titanic work.
His live Chicago recording was highly regarded in some quarters-I found it heavy, brash, raucous and actually vulgar in many passages, certainly lacking any charm and in a bass heavy recording that lacked any subtlety.
This new recording is taken from live concerts in 2016 from the Philharmonie Gasteig that preceded the LSO Prom of the same work which many readers (assuming there are ANY!) will have experienced. That concert was beautiful but lacked drive, and was marred by some technical fluffs in the brass.
I am happy to advise that this recording is so much better on so many counts, though still requiring caution. The playing is exquisite-no version is better played, with radiant strings, rich sonorous brass, thunderous percussion and glistening woodwind and all caught in a recording that is as fine as can be imagined.
The beauty is heart rending from the opening brass chorale to the final exultant chords of the finale.
HOWEVER-if patience is a virtue then the listener will need to be very virtuous when approaching this recording.
It is not THAT slow-at just over 100 minutes it is only 4 minutes longer that the Jansons/BRSO Subscription issue, and 3 minutes longer than the Sinopoli SWR recording that I love so much! Maazel’s VPO recording is over 104 minutes, but it has a steady pulse, a monumental drive that the Haitink performance lacks.
There is a feeling of carefully unfolding the drama without intervention which on the surface can be a good thing-letting the composer’s inspiration speak for itself is a perfectly valid
approach (in fact I can think of MANY recordings where more of that would be welcome)!
In this case however it makes the opening movement seem a little flaccid-meandering along rather than surging as it should do-whether at a slow or a quicker pace.
It is better than was the case in London-it is a tad more energised and the great outbursts of power are tremendously impressive and if the music is played as beautifully as here it cannot fail to be enjoyable to a degree, but it is all a bit “ anonymous.”
The first movement IS sectional-and it seems to me that Haitink is carefully guiding the orchestra through each section, then moving on to the next ensuring that it goes well, and so on… to the effect that I do not get a sense of an overall architecture.
The music is inherently beautiful, so this cannot fail to engender a high degree of listening pleasure, but as I have already hinted to me it lacks the necessary backbone, so to speak.
Haitink’s approach works far better in the Second Part-and the second movement is a bucolic delight with the sheer wonder of the playing overcoming any reservations about tempo there might be.
The third movement also works better, for the apex of the symphony. It is just a tad too literal in places to rave about it, but the offstage post horn duet with the horns will bring a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat. It captures the mood of nostalgic longing to perfection.
I share Ralph Moore’s irritation that singers such as Kathleen Ferrier are described as mezzo-sopranos nowadays-the term contralto seems to have dropped out of usage.
I was unaware of Gerhild Romberger until this disc, but she IS a contralto and her rich deep tone brings a magic and strength to her participation. I cannot fault Haitink in these next 2 movements and the Children’s and Women’s Choruses are exemplary and recorded in a perfect balance.
The Finale seems to find Haitink stepping back and revelling in the sublime inspiration and magnificent playing of the orchestra, and it unfolds naturally and unhurriedly but without dawdling and is a fine an exposition of this life affirming composition as any.
It’s easy to get carried away with the sheer magnificence of the playing and the recorded sound-it is pure pleasure just to wallow in it-but intellectually there is a slight dissatisfaction with what I hear as a lack of structure and impetus in the opening movement.
If you know Haitink’s Maher 9 with the BRSO in the same series you will know what I mean, and if you do not share my reservations about that performance (pretty much the same as here!) then this could be the recording for you.
It may well be the one in any event, because in the last analysis the sheer beauty and power of Mahler’s inspiration and the playing and recording largely override any reservations!
However, reservations there are and if I could I would award 4.5 Stars!
Alternatives vary according to your own conception of the work. If you prefer a more propulsive account then the Boulez VPO version is magnificent.
If the latest recording techniques including SACD are important to you, I would commend an absolutely magnificent recording by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra which has a stunning recording and a really insightful interpretation.
Bernstein’s second NYPO recording is a no holds barred reading, but string tone leaves a lot be desired and the live recording is dry and boxy even in its remastering- and from the past Kubelik’s live BRSO recording on Audite is excellent, as is the underrated Heinz Rögner on Berlin Classics-both at mid-price.
Abbado’s VPO account is one of the most joyous and the playing of the VPO is caught magnificently and the sound quality is enhanced in its Originals OIBM mastering-though there is the issue of the missing heavy percussion in the finale (they were not there!), but I would still it give one of the strongest recommendations, and I rate it above his BPO remake.
I am an absolute devotee of the Jansons/BRSO version, but it is a Subscription Issue and only available as a specialist import as is the Sinopoli/SWR version on Weitblick and both are very expensive compared to alternatives and though worth it in my view, not as an “entry version.”
Lovers of this symphony and Haitink devotees will want this issue-and they will be glad they have it and will return to it as often as time permits, as will I. 4 Stars under the amazon system, very nearly 5 in the Real World! Stewart Crowe.
*This is better than Haitink's 2006 release with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on CSO Resound.