Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection (1894) [84:17]
Anne Schwanewilms (soprano); Lioba Braun (contralto)
Chor der Bayerische Symphoniker/Rolf Beck
Bamberger Symphoniker and Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie/Jonathan Nott
rec. 14-15 March 2008, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle Bamberg, Germany
2 SACDs for the price of 1
TUDOR 7158 [32:53 + 51:24]
This Mahler 2 is a very fine recording indeed. The orchestra are on top form and the recorded sound is excellent. But most importantly of all, the conductor Jonathan Nott delivers an interpretation that exploits every dramatic possibility of the music and also suggests some solutions to the structural problems that dog the work.
This innovative structural thinking is most evident in the first movement. The problem, and it is a problem that most conductors ignore, is that the movement is too long and too autonomous to function as an opener. Nott’s solution is to vary the textures and tempos, so that only the most intense climaxes are given full weight. One result is that many passages seem less consequential, although never less committed, than in other recordings. The opening, for example, is very fast. It is cleanly articulated by the lower strings, but there is no sense of bombast, not yet anyway. The faster tempi and lower dynamics give the advantage to the woodwind soloists, who really shine, floating above the nervous strings with ease. And when the great climaxes do come, in the development and the recapitulation, they are all the better for the waiting. The brass are really effective in the louder passages, they have a searing tone which sounds as if bordering on the uncontrolled, which may or may not be the case, but certainly adds to the frisson.
The break between the discs is put between the second and third movements, an unusual move, given that the break usually comes between the first and second. Mahler states in the score that there should be a 5 minute break between the first and second movements, and putting the switch after the first gives the listener the opportunity to emulate that practise at home. But how many people actually do that? And does it increase their enjoyment of the work? No, it is just a clumsy solution to a major structural problem. But Jonathan Nott has a better idea, and I suspect that he has had a say in the positioning of the break. Instead of a five minute pause between the movements, his solution is to play down the drama of the first movement coda so that it does not overwhelm the second movement opening. He takes the descending chromatic scale superfast, but he has already set this up, because the tempo indication in the score is ‘Tempo 1’, and as he had taken the start of the movement similarly fast, it coheres elegantly. Genius!
The second and third movements are more relaxed than you will hear on many recordings. The second in particular is slow, gently flowing, almost pastoral. The SACD sound picks out some wonderful details here, particularly the low woodwind and the harps. There is slightly more drama in the third movement, but as in the first, it tends to be localised, bringing implicit emphasis through comparison with the more relaxed passages.
The vocal soloists are both good, although it is a shame that their timbres don’t match. Lioba Braun has a rich, husky alto, while Anne Schwanewilms has a much purer, crisper soprano. The finale is another dramatic tour de force, but like the first movement, Nott allows for plenty of variety in his tempos and dynamics. As with the first movement, I’m particularly impressed by the originality of the tempo decisions. Much of the movement is quite slow, but even when Nott pulls the tempos around from one bar to the next it never feels indulgent. The choral climax, by contrast, is slightly faster than most other readings, but no less monumental for it. Detail is the key to Jonathan Nott’s art; he knows that if he can get the internal balance with the orchestra right, and have every player agree on the articulations and note lengths, then he will be in a position to concentrate on the bigger picture. I have been impressed in the past by a number of Nott’s recordings (have you heard his Ligeti Requiem? Phenomenal) and he strikes me as the kind of recording artist for whom superior audio is a major benefit. Those inside lines in the strings, the subtle differences of timbre in woodwind duets, gradual dynamic changes in the harp, all these things are essential to his approach. Hearing his work presented at this audio quality you can really see where he is coming from.
It says on the back of the box that this is a live recording. I’ll take their word for that, but it surprises me, given the finely tuned balance of the orchestra, not to mention the absolute absence of audience noise or applause.
Gone are the days when we talked about benchmark recordings of Mahler symphonies, there are just too many high quality recordings out there for the idea to remain feasible. But perhaps this could be described as a benchmark of recent Mahler interpretation. It is certainly among the best of the many Mahler discs I have heard this year. On the other hand, it is such a coherent and self-sufficient interpretation, that comparison with others seems irrelevant. Highly recommended to all fans of Jonathan Nott and Mahler – however many Resurrection Symphonies you already have on your shelf.
Gavin Dixon 2010