INKPOT#95 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MAHLER Symphony No.6. Cleveland O/Szell (Sony)

Symphony No. 6 in A minor “Tragic” The Cleveland Orchestra
conducted by George Szell

1967 “Live” recording from Severance Hall

SONY Essential Classics SBK 47654
[73:39] budget-price

by Roy Chan

From the vaults of the Sony Essential Classics series comes this 1967 ‘live’ recording, a buried treasure and an exemplary paradigm of the old clich: “To let the music speak for itself!”

George Szell Although George Szell (right) did record a few of Mahler’s works in the 1960s, like his classic account of the Fourth Symphony and the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth (also on the Sony label), his acquaintance with the music of this composer was not widely known. Undeservedly, he thus did not share the acclaim received by such Mahler protgs as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer or Sir John Barbirolli.

The interpretative style of George Szell is generally not associated with “excessive passion” or “self-indulgence”. Instead his manner of conducting leans more towards the traditional school, which favours a “classical” view of music. This is not necessarily bad. A good example would be the music of Mahler, which is often too sentimentally played.

True, this performance of the Mahler’s Sixth is undeniably restrained, emotionally speaking. However it is no less effective. Deeply stirring and powerfully portrayed, its culminating effect especially in the last movement is overwhelming; perhaps the most persuasive performance of this work I have ever heard.

The first movement opens in a moderate pace with the penetrating rumbling of the lower strings underlining the grim march rhythm; at once propelling and driven. A very promising start! Szell’s strict grip on the motion of the music enables the turns and twists of phrases, its accumulating energy and evolving forces becoming more evident. Everything is as clear as daylight here. Interestingly, the slightly dim recorded sound actually lends itself nicely to the tonal picture, exuding an overall darker colour.

The second “Alma” subject is treated with warmth but without any excessive emotions, while the playing of the bass drum and celesta towards the end is surprisingly clear for the recording’s age, with no overloading. Unfortunately, Szell opts not to observe the exposition repeat and plunges straight into the development section instead. His somewhat cold tempering of the lyrical “cowbells” passages, at once suggestive of the deceptive appearances of all good things and the universal lack of true calm and peace, sheds a whole new light on this initially obscure episode.

Among recent recordings, only the Boulez/VPO DG account, in my opinion, comes as close in revealing the minute architectural and contextual details of this movement.

The diabolical Scherzo is played in an assertive manner with heart-pounding timpani strokes and importunate woodwinds shrills, so that more weight is imparted to the underlining rhythm; fully in line with the “Wuchtig” marking. Strangely, I feel that Szell’s handling leans more to the “untraditional” side here as he, instead of maximizing the contrast between the two similar sounding movements, plays in a tempo and mood congruous to the first movement. It is as if he sees the first and second movement together as a single whole.

This bold interpretation proves not only logical but also illuminating on the following few aspects. The first movement ends in the bright A major, albeit not an affirmative one, while the Scherzo starts in the tonic A minor key with archetypal rhythm. Secondly, they are related thematically. To follow the logical scheme, it seems not only right but also inevitable to play the Scherzo immediately after the first, so that whatever victory achieved is but a futile effort to escape fate.

Mahler in 1911 The heavenly Andante moderato follows without a break. In my opinion, this movement alone is worth the price of the admission. At 13’30, this is also one of the fastest versions, and in a true “moderately andante” fashion. The unsentimental but blissful pastoral mood implies the delusive nature of things once again, and provides a moment of retreat from the real world. Which is not to say Szell is icy cold – but the way emotions arise for the general mood to fit with the overall scheme stresses the symphonic argument, insinuates that even in that purified atmosphere of the high Alps, whatever the sun shines on has no warmth in it. Even then there are still many glorious and heartwarming moments showcasing the Clevelanders at their most tender and sublime.

In the Finale, Szell leads the opening in a way I prefer – refreshingly direct and searching, as if the “hero” has ultimately come to his final resting-place. He seeks to attack the music head on with much courage and spirit as opposed to fear and despair; so instead of escaping from fate, the omnipresent “hero” simply marches on with an unstoppable forward momentum.

Amazingly, no attempt is made to fluctuate, as many conductors do, the rhythmic tempi to highlight the disorientation, but just a regular swift pacing which brings out, ironically, much of the hero’s dignity and spirituality as he moves on.

With the appearance of the first hammer blow, a brief moment of negation is instilled into the music as Szell urgently directs the instruments to be played at the extreme ends of their registers, suggesting terror, before rushing to pull everything back into order. The situation changes as discipline and morale falls, with tension deliberately slacked. However with the (only) entry of the whip, pace begins to pick up and soon we find myself back on the original route.

The playing of the solo violin passage after the second hammer blow is desolated, lonely and poignant as the conductor shifts the rest of the orchestra into the background to heighten the grief. But hope suddenly flares up as Szell whips up the momentum and directs the music to the final but vain attempt to reach triumph.

Incidentally, Szell follows Mahler’s final decision to delete the last hammer blow. In the coda, motion is retarded in a slow, withdrawn and solemn way and I would be surprised if the listener does not get a fright with the rude and piercingly played last huge crash. One drawback though: The audience’s applause at the end is not removed and some might find that an anticlimax.

The sound quality of the 1967 recording is very respectable and well-balanced though it could be better with the bass line slightly more diffused. The Cleveland Orchestra is occasionally up to par at times, but seriously, apart from these few minor quibbles, this is truly a great performance. Mahlerians who have yet to own or hear this recording: Dash out to get it right now before it disappears!

Roy Chan hopes that the local orchestra would open its next season with either Mahler’s “Resurrection” or his “Symphony of a thousand”.

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706: 5.2.2000 Roy Chan

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