Mahler: Symphony No.6


Sometimes known as ‘The Tragic’ – a title suggested but then withdrawn by the composer – Mahler’s Sixth Symphony embodies much of the inner turmoil and superstition of its composer. Conceived at perhaps one of the happiest periods of Mahler’s life, it seems to foreshadow the personal tragedies that would later befall him – with his wife Alma writing that “The music and what it foretold touched us deeply.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s work with the Philharmonia for the City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935 concert series has produced a number of powerful, live concert recordings for the Philharmonia series, including Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique and Mahler’s Symphony No.9 – all of which have been praised by critics following their release on Signum.
" … the orchestral playing was of a very high order … his command of the intensely difficult finale was wholly admirable, moving towards that astounding, deeply moving, coda with fine artistry." 
Robert Matthew-Walker, Classical 
(Review of the concert of this recording)

What people are saying

"The brass are heroic and dauntingly present throughout – from the tuba that executes a fiendish trill in the finale to the clarion trumpets fan faring the doom-marches." BBC Music Magazine 

"This is a terrific Mahler 6 … Where Gergiev achieves a generalised superficial excitement, Salonen’s closer consideration is more rewarding and repays more generously repeated listening." Musicweb International – Recording of the Month
"[Salonen’s] performance is purposeful and revealing." Classic FM Magazine

Philharmonia Orchestra

Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor

Release date:5th Oct 2011
Order code:SIGCD275
Barcode: 635212027523

September 2012

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia in a very good performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony on Signum Classics, notable for some exceptionally secure brass playing and the brisk nature of the opening movement, which downplays the grim nature of the march into something more bracing, at least to begin with. The pastoral dreamscape is just that, with cowbells suitably distanced before the march returns. Salonen places the Scherzo before the Andante, which finds the Philharmonia strings in finest lyrical voice, while Salonen encourages the movement to flow rather than wallow; the horns are rather wonderful towards the end. The finale is powerfully wrought, the recording from the Royal Festival Hall doing nearly full justice to the huge climaxes, even if the hammer blows (two) are rather subsumed in the orchestral explosions. This is a Sixth with great emotional sweep, squeezed onto a single disc which is well worth the modest outlay.

International Record Review, Mark Pullinger

 The Music Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is lots of things – a commentary on Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony No.3, the compositional gear change that led the way towards his final sequence of rulebook-slashing symphonies; but also it’s one of Mahler’s most obviously ‘symphonic’ utterances, dealing with ideas of heroic endeavours that may, or may not, hit the rocks.

The Performance Another month, another Mahler Six. In last month’s magazine I reviewed Antonio Pappano’s new recording on EMI Classics, and on the surface, both versions have much in common. Salonen and Pappano opt to place the Scherzo before the Andante; both recordings benefit from top-notch orchestras fully versed in the idiom. But Salonen’s account is more straight-laced and direct. Pappano nudges the second movement forward slightly to jolt the continuity; Salonen noticeably plays both movements at the same tempo. Pappano is loose and throws the shapes; Salonen calculates every detail prudently.
The Verdict For repeated listening, Pappano clearly has an edge. But when I say Salonen calculates every detail that’s not the same as being ‘calculating’, and his performance is purposeful and revealing.

Classic FM Magazine

We have Mahler’s twin anniversary years to thank for the latest wave of concert recordings. Here two of today’s most perspicacious music directors tackle what was once reckoned an implausibly gruelling assignment even by the composer’s disciples. Attitudes have changed but controversies remain, principally over the running order of the middle movements. Mahler wrote the symphony with the Scherzo placed before the slow movement, then switched the order and, as is now clear, never reverted to the original sequence in performance. Antonio Pappano and Esa-Pekka Salonen nevertheless put the Scherzo first, a decision buttressed by Julian Johnson’s booklet-note for Signum (even if he implies that all three hammer-blows will be heard in the finale). Both readings also observe the first-movement exposition repeat and have had the concluding applause lopped off.

In other respects they are worlds apart. Salonen famously began his relationship with the Philharmonia as a late stand-in conducting Mahler’s Third in 1983: he was then still in his twenties and more composer than maestro. Recently, as the ensemble’s chief, he has returned to Mahler in the context of a concert series surveying the emergence of musical modernism in Vienna, ‘city of dreams’. In showing how Mahler opens the door to new possibilities, Salonen’s approach is consistently hard-edged and unfussy, although he will occasionally take a passage haltingly as if intensifying the gloom – this happens just before the first movement’s less-than-wholly euphoric dash to the finishing line. Admirers of Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated recordings will probably find Salonen too cool and it is true that his Los Angeles sojourn would seem to have impacted on his composing more than his conducting. Structural coherence remains the prerequisite of the latter: ‘if you stop for too long to smell the flowers along the road then you lose sight of the goal’. Rubato is carefully rationed, which makes much of the score turn mechanistic and dark. The Andante alone seems rather pale; the finale is uncommonly cogent.
Coming to the orchestral scores via longer acquaintance with the vocal music, Pappano prefers a more emotive style, with variously blended textures and a bigger string sound. Marginally slower tempi necessitate a split between discs. Pappano plainly has a congenial venue: Salonen’s Royal Festival Hall imparts a certain thinness of string tone and bluntness of timbre whereas EMI’s production has the opulence associated with studio efforts. The big question is whether either account deserves to find an audience beyond the committed pool of concert attendees and/or fans of the man up front. Salonen’s dour conception is unmistakably the product of our own times. Pappano’s, with vocal exhortations from the podium and bronchial noises off, is comfort-blanket-romantic in its optimism and emotional openness.
Both orchestras are on fine form in their different ways. The gulf between them is most obvious in explicitly evocative passages. Take the rural idyll at the heart of the first movement (for all that the Italian cowbells are reticent) or the characterisation of the Trio in the second where Pappano’s treatment is that much more blatant. His slow movement is predictably warmer in feeling while his finale depicts a protagonist in love with life who won’t admit defeat until the very end. If you hear Mahler in terms of direct expressive communication rather than aesthetic novelty, you will find this version easier to love.

Gramophone, David Gutman

This may not be perfect, but how the Philharmonia players must now be nostalgic for the rigour of Esa-Pekka Salonen, their principal conductor, after the torpor of Lorin Maazel’s recent Mahler cycle. It’s perhaps more impressive as sound than shape. The brass are heroic and dauntingly present throughout – from the tuba that executes a fiendish trill in the finale to the clarion trumpets fan faring the doom-marches.
Salonen has had to work over the years on late-Romantic phrases; he has always been more of a note-by-note texturer. He can just about get away with a dragging rather than impetuous first march, bur the liberation of the soaring A major theme doesn’t quite happen, since it’s too pulled around. Praise be for the more dramatic of the much-contested middle-movement orderings: Scherzo second and Andante third. And while it’s good to hear a third movement that’s not stuck in the mud, it does feel a little too pushed for sinuous grace. The real payoff of live performance comes, as ever, in the final drive towards a victory that implodes. Here, the clarity of Salonen’s Philharmonia strings in apocalyptic welters only enhances the excitement of the ride to the abyss. And the fact that the Philharmonia is combating dry, unenhanced Festival Hall acoustics makes the imposingly warm sound Salonen often creates seem all the more impressive.

BBC Music Magazine

 Recording of the Month

This is a terrific Mahler 6. Salonen is not ordinarily a Mahlerian of choice for me, and I was expecting this to be relatively detached, probably packed with interesting detail but unlikely to stir the emotions. 

I was half right. There is ear-catching detail aplenty in Salonen’s account. He has clearly thought deeply about the score and rehearsed it carefully. Wind interjections in the first movement and the rumble of timpani in the third are suddenly of fresh musical interest. Entries and accents, especially in the final movement, feel at once surprising and inevitable. 

I was wrong, though, in expecting an emotionally cool performance. While the careful preparation of the score is obvious, this live performance crackles with spontaneity. True, Salonen is not a wildly passionate Mahlerian – he is no Tennstedt (terrifying live in 1981, but truly harrowing live in 1991) – but this performance still has plenty of smoulder. 

The march rhythms of the first movement step at an ideal tempo, held steadily but not inflexibly for the duration of the movement and the scherzo that follows. Witness for example the way Salonen slows right down at around the 22 minute mark, building tempo and tension back up into the glorious breath-catching dissonance before the movement’s close. This first movement is full of detail and contrast. The pastoral interludes are truly beautiful, though punctured and framed by quietly snarling brass. Overall, though, optimism rises above the terror. 

Salonen plays the scherzo second with brutal bump and bounce. The consistency of tempo between the first two movements heightens the musical connection between them and magnifies the disorientating effect of hearing familiar thematic material refracted through a 3/4 time signature. The irony here is not savage but nor is it aloof. 

The Andante is the emotional heart of this performance, taken at a flowing tempo and burnished by the lush, glossy tone of the Philharmonia’s strings. The final movement is once again expertly paced and carefully managed. In some performances the finale is half an hour of ever-increasing tension. Salonen instead treats it as a kaleidoscope of moods: terrifying, jaunty, panicked, optimistic and ultimately tragic. 

In a direct movement by movement comparison between this Philharmonia/Salonen recording and Gergiev’s LSO Live recording, I found the former consistently more compelling. Gergiev conceives the symphonic journey in an overall arc and plays the score straight and with menace. He is consistently quicker than Salonen in all four movements, most noticeably in the opening Allegro energico where he shaves two minutes off Salonen’s round 24. Salonen hardly drags – even with the first movement exposition repeat his performance of the symphony just fits on a single disc. But at slightly slower tempi, Salonen allows for more nuance, draws out more detail, calibrates more telling inflection. Where Gergiev achieves a generalised superficial excitement, Salonen’s closer consideration is more rewarding and repays more generously repeated listening. 

The paragraphs above are very Salonen focused. Salonen this. Salonen that. But the best thing Salonen does on this disc is let his orchestra play. The Philharmonia is simply magnificent, and it is the orchestra’s sound that makes this performance so utterly involving. It is not just a matter of tonal beauty – although there is plenty of beautiful playing – but finely graded variety of tone and accent, and expertly balanced and weighted chords and chorales. 

There have been Mahler issues aplenty since the beginning of 2010, and as we near the end of 2011 there are at least four new sixths for Mahlerians to consider, all recorded live. In addition to this Signum Classics release we have Pappano on EMI, Boulez on Accentus and Ashkenazy on Sydney Symphony Live. I have not heard any of those recordings – although I was in the audience for one of the performances from which Ashkenazy’s CD has been fashioned – you can hear it too here. 

What is clear, though, is that those other performances would need to be special indeed to have a superior claim on your attention. For UK readers and those that buy from the UK online, price is also a relevant consideration, and here Salonen has a clear advantage. His single Signum Classics disc sells at budget price, while Pappano (2-for1) and Boulez (2 discs) come at full price, and Ashkenazy – more easily accessible as a download from Amazon than at retail outlets outside Australia – comes at mid-price. 

Given the unbridled excellence of the music-making and the tiny price tag, I can’t conceive of any reason not to buy this disc. 

Musicweb International, Tim Perry

Two live recordings of this gargantuan symphony – the "Tragic" – from two fine orchestras and two top conductors: how to choose? Both give electrifying performances and both place the scherzo before the andante – a still disputed ordering. If you already have a loyalty for one partnership over the other, you can choose either with confidence: these are enthralling accounts. Pappano opts for marginally slower tempi and terrific, ear-scorching climaxes. Salonen suggests continuity by taking first and second movements at the same, slightly brisker speed. The Philharmonia benefits from some wonderfully aristocratic horn playing which might, on repeated listening, narrowly and with much agonising, win the day.


The Observer, Fiona Maddocks

If a gorgeously refulgent sound and heaven-storming rhetoric are what you look for in a recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, this one won’t be your first choice. If an intelligent and subtle shaping of its huge span and alertness to each telling detail count for more, you’ll find it richly rewarding. The delicacy of the Philharmonia’s playing is miraculous, particularly in the lovely andante movement.

The Daily Teleraph, Ivan Hewitt

  1. Symphony No.6 in A minor: I. Allegro energico, ma non troppo – Gustav Mahler – 24.00
  2. Symphony No.6 in A minor: II. Scherzo. Wuchtig – Gustav Mahler – 13.10
  3. Symphony No.6 in A minor: III. Andante – Gustav Mahler – 14.06
  4. Symphony No.6 in A minor: IV. Finale. Allegro moderato – Allegro energico – Gustav Mahler – 29.16