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Mahler marvels

by Tim Pfaff

Mahler marvels

As would only be fitting, MTT, our own private Merlin of Mahler, is crafting his farewell season as music director of the SF Symphony around two major pillars of the composer's output, the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies. Some standout new Mahler recordings lay the groundwork for audience preparation.

Rafael Kubelik was Europe's counterpart to Leonard Bernstein in bringing Mahler symphonies out of the shadows into their current, central place in the orchestral repertoire, and DG has just re-mastered his complete cycle, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony on 10 CDs and a single, startlingly clear Blu-ray disc. Nothing in it sounds obsolete, everything arrestingly new. Kubelik's First has always held pride of place, and now the others sound properly like siblings.

If there's a single reason to invest in the set, it's Kubelik's Eighth, the sprawling, monumental work in which one hears all of Mahler and which Mahler putatively regarded as his finest. I'd gladly salute MTT's latest Eighth as the new reference recording were it not fouled by James Morris' caustic, snarling bass, which renders it unlistenable to me. A re-recording of MTT's farewell Eighth, the best imaginable farewell disc, might plant a flag on Everest.

With the Sixth, it's the opposite problem. There's already a recording for every taste, yet new ones continue to bring word from the work's inexhaustible front lines. Not to be overlooked among them is the most recent, by Teodor Currentzis, leading MusicAeterna, his orchestra of musician loyalists who would follow him into the fire (Sony). In fact his Sixth is incendiary, fearless in its plunge into this dark territory and equally impassioned in its rendering of the overwhelming Andante. It demands to be heard.

As arresting a new interpretation, if for significantly different reasons, is Francois-Xavier Roth's of the First Symphony (Harmonia Mundi), a second recorded First for Roth but this one with his specialty period-instrument ensemble Les Siecles, which is changing the way we hear much pre-WWI music. We have been teased with the prospect of historically informed Mahler before, but with only limited delivery on the promise historically appropriate instruments and playing styles bring to the enterprise. From the First's opening measures, music coming from another plane, at last we get both greater remoteness in the origin of the sound and more cogent if raucous revels on the ground.

Balances, particularly tricky given the extreme dynamics of the First, do nearly take care of themselves, and Fischer and his players ride herd joyously. This nature-soaked symphony gains immeasurably from performance on more "natural," less high-tech instruments.

As realized here, the winds give us the chirping of the insects and the singing of the birds as realistically, and vividly, as their modern counterparts do in Messiaen. The percussion instruments clearly belong to humans plumbing them for their maximum sonic possibilities, not operators of instruments of sonic war.

The CD's strong cover makes it clear this will not be an ordinary First, and it spells out the version played, the first (1893-94) of three of this symphony. Mahler, ever suspicious of the word symphony, the form he was to take to its limits, called his "tone poem" "Titan," referring to its extramusical "program" mapping a hero's journey, cradle to grave.

This early version still contains the second movement, "Blumine," a comparatively pale pastel in which Mahler wordlessly declares his passion for Marion von Weber, the wife of one of his best friends. The almost unbearable sweetness of the strings speaks so literally of forbidden love that it's plain why the composer eventually deleted it from the score. Had he not made the excision on his own, it's sure that his ambitious wife Alma, the love of his life, would have seen to it.

This recording counts as the stake in the heart of the notion that old instruments cannot rise to the sonic capacity and overall brilliance of their modern successors. Yet here you can hear the "foot" in both the funeral march and the cloddily buoyant country dances, and when the full orchestra weighs in with the "Dall'Inferno" ("From hell") finale, Verdi's Dies Irae feels near.

Finally, as splendidly as he did with his shelf-clearing recent Third, Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra weigh in with what's sure to be the reference recording of the Seventh Symphony (Channel Classics). Credit the engineering, too, but Fischer's way of optimizing clarity in heavy scoring by creating interactive sonic environments for his players, spheres within spheres, dispatches once and for all the notion that this is the composer's strangest and most elusive work.

It's seldom sounded so confident, taking the music's prescriptions at full dose. More than ever before, we hear that this music is not forbidding, but as co-created here, clear as night.

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