, September 2006
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s first two releases for Ondine under Christoph Eschenbach (Bartók and Tchaikovsky) were extremely good, no doubt about it, but this Mahler Sixth is really extraordinary. Part of its success must stem from the fact that the best German conductors usually do misery especially well, finding the dark side of just about everything. If you don’t believe me, check out Kurt Sanderling’s startlingly deep and edgy rendition of Poulenc’s Concert Champêtre on Supraphon. So you can just imagine what can happen with a piece like Mahler’s Sixth. Anyone fortunate enough to have heard Eschenbach’s performances of this work with the NDR Orchestra in Hamburg will know that he has a special feeling for its harrowing intensity and expressionistic instrumental palette. Toss in the collective virtuosity of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the result is, to put it mildly, pretty special.
One of the first things you notice about this performance, right at the beginning of the first-movement march, is the rich ensemble sound. The strings have a heft that gives Karajan’s Berliners a run for their money, but never at the expense of textural clarity, thanks to penetrating brass and woodwinds. Eschenbach’s tempo is ideal: quick enough to fulfill Mahler’s “energico” directive but measured enough to let the players really dig into the rhythm and make the music sound threatening. The second-subject “Alma theme” has tremendous passion, but Eschenbach is smart enough not to slow down and make the music wallow in sentimentality. There are two equally strong but contrasting forces battling here: the militant and the lyrical. You won’t hear the central episode, with its tinkling cowbells and celesta, done more poetically by anyone, and the same holds true of the entire coda, which rises to an ecstatic climax that once again offers intensity with no loss of energy.
The scherzo, happily placed second, also has unusual weight and an oppressive sense of menace. Eschenbach catches all kinds of characterful detail beyond the usual Mahlerian special effects (such as clattering xylophone, or col legno strings). One particularly memorable moment concerns the third and last appearance of the scherzo proper, where the trombones spit out their gracenote-laden sectional solo with a venom that’s alarmingly (and aptly) vicious. The final disintegration and wind-down (not too slow) could not have been better handled. The Andante is slower than most, a bit more than 17 minutes, or close to what Karajan did (but not as slow as Tennstedt II or the ridiculous Sinopoli). Aside from eliciting string playing that is so beautiful it will send chills down your spine, Eschenbach once again proves his sensitivity to Mahler’s idiom in the positively luminous “Alpine meadow” episode, and above all when the cowbells come painfully crashing in against the final climactic appearance of the main theme. It’s a moment that no other performance matches, and no Mahlerian will want to miss it.
It practically goes without saying, given all of the foregoing, that Eschenbach is going to offer the best (meaning scariest) introduction to the finale since Bernstein/Vienna. All of those “things that go bump in the night” sound effects—the offstage chimes, plucked harp, icy-toned low celesta, and solo tuba—are perfectly in place. Indeed, I have to single out the tuba player for special praise. Eschenbach pays a lot of very welcome attention to Mahler’s bass lines, and much of the credit for their pliancy and vividness goes to the tuba. As in the first movement, the march music is ideally paced, and the lyrical passages have incredible sweep, making the lead-in to the first hammer blow particularly impressive. Those devastating events (two of them) are just what Mahler ordered: real blows to the solar plexus.
As a particularly telling example of Eschenbach’s persuasive handling of rubato and his superb sense of musical timing, I would single out the passage beginning with that idyllic interlude just after the first hammer blow, and proceeding right through the second one to the return of the introduction. It’s both colossally powerful as well as organically flowing, despite wide ranging tempos and no small amount of effective expressive underlining. This is not the sort of severe, “classical” approach you will hear coming from, say, Yoel Levi (Telarc), but as already suggested, Eschenbach adopts a hyper-romantic style somewhat similar to Bernstein’s, if even more heavily interventionist. You might say that he joins Bernstein's physicality to Karajan's and Sinopoli’s sensuality, with the result that by the symphony’s crushing ending you feel just the sort of gut-wrenching catharsis that Mahler must have had in mind when he conceived the work a bit more than 100 years ago.
As a coupling, the early piano quartet movement is more appropriate than you might at first think. First of all, it shares the same key as the symphony, and second, it’s useful to have it along as part of an all-Mahler program, allowing collectors to round out their collections without having to search for an acceptable all-chamber-music program. The engineering also represents the best in this series so far, with virtually no audience noise, tremendous presence in both stereo and multichannel formats, and extremely natural balances between orchestral sections. I know that Mahler Sixes seem to be a dime a dozen these days, but this one, a first for Philadelphia, belongs among the elite few (Bernstein I and II, Chailly, Levi, T. Sanderling, and Gielen). It’s just bloody thrilling.