La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Mahler: Symphonies Nos 1-10

Vocal soloists; Schweizer Kammerchor; Zürcher Sängerknaben; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; Kinderchor Kaltbrunn; Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman

RCA Red Seal 88697 72723-2 (15 Hybrid SACD – 794 min 24 s/ DVD 80 min)


It used to be that a Mahler symphony cycle on record typically required a decade or more to complete. The sessions for this set began in 2006 and concluded last year. RCA threw in super audio (playable on conventional CD decks) recording and launched the cycle with military precision in 2007. The performances reached collectors in sequence, at mid-price and in short order. The appearance of this lavish boxed set followed the last individual release by only a few months. The collection comes at bargain price and the highest production values have been maintained. A consolidated booklet includes splendid essays on each work by Thomas Meyer, complete sung texts with English translation and even a roster of the players. The striking cover art for each album (details from art nouveau paintings by Swiss artist Augusto Giacometti, a contemporary of the composer) is retained. Even the slip covers are of high quality with double-disc symphonies housed securely together in bi-folds. No wonder that multiple sponsors are listed -- including Mercedes-Benz. This is Champagne fare on a beer budget.

David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra won international renown with a series of recordings for Arte Nova. Their Beethoven symphony cycle was a million-seller. A Schumann cycle and the orchestral works of Richard Strauss were also lionized by critics. During the past four years or so, Zinman has taken the trouble to acquaint us with the fact that the Tonhalle is a world-class Mahler orchestra. His methods are revealed in the accompanying film documentary on the preparation and performance of the Sixth Symphony. Going Against Fate by Viviane Blumenschein is remarkably candid in presenting an orchestra in rehearsal and on the concert platform. Musicians are encouraged to express their feelings about the music. And except when he is belting out Tom Lehrer’s satirical song, Alma (yes, that Alma), Zinman is a model of decorum and humility.

As the discs came along one by one, the reception was generally warm with a bit of sniping from critics on the flanks. After hearing the complete contents of the box, let it be said that here is a rare example of the whole exceeding the sum of the parts. The performances are excellent and audio quality is of the highest standard. In each symphony, Zinman is scrupulous in observing Mahler’s markings and the players respond magnificently to his requirements. The project also attracted superbly prepared choruses and a first class lineup of vocal soloists. The singers taking part are: Juliane Banse, Anna Larsson, Birgit Remmert, Luba Organisova, Melanie Diener, Lisa Larsson, Yvonne Naef, Anthony Dean Griffey, Stephen Powell, Askar Abdrazakov and Alfred Muff. The experience is rather like joining this legion to complete an odyssey. Only journey’s end is abrupt. Zinman elected to use the ‘completion’ of the Tenth by the American Clinton Carpenter rather than his normal choice of Deryck Cooke’s performing version. Of all of the realizations produced, Carpenter’s is the most interventionist. It is worth hearing but it can never supersede what Cooke achieved.

Long after the Mahler consecutive anniversary years, this symphony cycle will be recalled as one of the greatest issues of the period.

- Stephen Habington

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