Mahler: Symphonies 1, 2 and songs (various labels)

The highs and lows of following a great

Lebrecht's Album of the Week


Although quite a few orchestras now release concerts on their own labels, the field is fraught with risk. London’s Philharmonia Orchestra has chosen Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony as its second selfie. Big mistake. The Philharmonia’s brand is largely defined by Otto Klepmperer’s 1960s Mahler performances, led by an earth-shattering Resurrection. It remains an everlasting benchmark.

The latest Mahler Second is conducted by a Finnish music director, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, who has incandescent qualities but speaks Mahler clunkily as a foreign language. The opening movement, though two minutes quicker than most, has sluggish tempi and structural frailty. Instrumental solos are highlighted at the expense of textural coherence. One of the two vocal soloists is unsure where to breathe. This performance cannot end soon enough for me. Did no-one ask the conductor in rehearsal where on earth he thought this was going?

Happily, Semyon Bychkov’s Czech Philharmonic cycle shows how Mahler ought to be done. The first symphony offers a travelogue of pre-industrial forests and lakes, interwoven with human disasters. Love and death are inseparable in this landscape. Bychkov downplays the klezmer tune in the third-movement orgy to universalise the horror of men and women dancing themselves drunk after a child’s funeral. The Pentatone sound is pellucid and the Czech Phil can give any orchestra on earth a masterclass in Mahler idioms. I await each instalment of this cycle with bated breath.

Kathleen Ferrier was the first English contralto to sing Mahler with authority, followed eminently by Janet Baker and lately by Alice Coote and Sarah Connolly. All are magnificent. Connolly’s rich, deep tone on Signum Classics sets the Five Rückert Lieder in a valley of shadows, from pitch dark in Um Miiternacht to solitary dawn in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. Connolly Songs of the Death of Children are as heartrending as it gets, almost unbearably empathetic. The pianist Joseph Middleton maintains a therapeutic emotional balance. This experience will not leave you.

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