David Zinman‘s chronological Mahler cycle has now reached the crushing, tragic Symphony 6. His recordings of the Wunderhorn symphonies are very good, but his 5th was a setback. Zinman’s approach is on the cool side, which is valid, but despite the superb playing from the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, the neurotic contrasts of styles and emotions in that work were too smoothed out in the recording, which ended up being underwhelming.
This new CD not only is a return to form but a standout issue. Despite it’s sharp-edge emotions – malevolence, fervid longing, near-hysterical fantods and final tragedy – a cool approach can work. Stylistically, Mahler consolidated his language a bit from the freedom of the previous symphony, abstracting the emotions a light bit into a more Classical structure. Pierre Boulez has already produced an intriguing recording of this ‘coolness,’ and Zinman has really surpassed that. The effect is subtle, but the results are profound. He places the beautiful, wrenching Andante Moderato movement second, which initially seems flawed; the understated style of the first movement would seem more ideally contrasted with the insanity of the Scherzo. But Zinman has a long-term dramatic view of this work, and his choices pay off. The Scherzo itself is a stunning contrast to what he has just presented, and his finale is perhaps the finest I’ve heard. The last movement is immense and sprawling, wandering into powerful, introverted reveries that are then crushed by fate. It’s full of extraordinary music but is clearly difficult to control. This conductor shows an absolute mastery not only of the musical traffic but the direction of the long arch and line. It is gripping in itself, and he has balanced the symphony by presenting a narrative of foreboding, hope, harsh opposition and then fate, and the ultimate result is deep tragedy. The orchestral playing is wonderful, the recording stunning, and Zinman’s transparent delineation of the complex polyphony is revelatory. Tremendous in every way.
I’ve also been revisiting an older recording the Symphony 1, a bargain priced reissue with Herbert Kegel conducting the Dresden Philharmonic. Like Zinman’s recording, it is modest in presentation and superb. This is a real model of how the symphony can go. It moves but does not rush, it highlights but doesn’t indulge, it is idiomatic in every way, especially the absolutely Viennese Kraftig bewegt movement, without being indulgent. This is great music-making by a tremendous, musical and self-effacing conductor and one of the world’s finest orchestras. Each time I listen to it, I feel it is the finest recording of this work, and perhaps it is.