Mahler: Symphonies no 3, 6 & 10 / Adler, Vienna SO
These are 'historic recordings', but you won't have to listen through a sea of crackles to appreciate them. It is astonishing to consider that Mahler's Sixth, long recognized as one of the century's seminal works, had to wait until 1952 for this, its first commercial recording. Its reappearance reminds us just how recent a phenomenon is the Mahler boom. The conductor may be unfamiliar. A refugee from the Nazis, Charles Adler settled in the USA and married into money, using it to subsidize his own record label, SPA. Which is not to decry the venture: SPA issued records of many new and unknown works, while Adler's own musical credentials were impressive enough — he had been a pupil of Felix Mottl and Mahler himself. That said, he wasn't a man to worry too much about fraudulent marketing. On the original LPs, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra masqueraded variously as the 'Vienna Orchestra' and 'Vienna Philharmonia'. Interested readers should note that an article in the winter issue of Gramophone's sister publication, ICRC, provides further useful background. Whatever may be wrong with Adler's Mahler performances, their emotional truth and scrupulous attention to dynamics goes a long way to compensate for indifferent intonation and some rather rough-and-ready orchestral playing. The timpani are the most persistent offenders and brass tuning often slips under pressure.
Adler's pioneering Sixth is said to have been set down in only 11 hours. Writing in these pages, Deryck Cooke was much taken with it, but then he always saw the first movement as a world-weary trudge rather than the brutal, authoritarian march conceived by Bernstein and emulated by most subsequent interpreters (including Karajan whose own recording is due for reissue). Adler is nothing if not direct. Having chosen his tempo, he sticks to it right through the chorale, the 'Alma' theme and even (no exposition repeat) the pastoral interlude. Mahler warns against undue 'dragging' but Adler's cowbells are anything but distant and quiet - the herd is close by and frisky. By contrast, the beginning of the coda is surely too slow. The Andante is placed second (the documentation by Gerald Fox of the Gustav Mahler Society of New York - is exceptionally strong on the composer's vacillations regarding the order of the middle movements). Cooke thought Adler sluggish here and the deliberate speed does rather draw attention to the thinness of the string sound. Notated portamentos, here as elsewhere, are too reticent. On the other hand, the narrow-bore horn produces a slightly 'stopped' tone which seems just right in context: this is clearly some sort of Viennese orchestra. Sadly, brass intonation again slips at the climax. The Scherzo fares least well. Timpani tuning is fairly wretched, and, despite a slowish tempo, orchestral ensemble and intonation leave much to be desired. Adler's finale is also on the slow side (the whole movement lasts over 33 minutes) but convincingly so, as if recognizing at the outset that the battle has been lost. It's a pity that the second hammer blow (18'55") wasn't retaken as the tam-tam is late. But the closing page is remarkable, the fate motif hammered out in very measured quavers, the finality of the strings' pizzicato emphasized by a lengthy, rhetorical pause.
At which point you may need to sprint across to your CD player to avoid launching into the opening of the Third Symphony. Back in August 1962 (its first release in the UK), Cooke was less enthusiastic about this, eagerly anticipating Bernstein's more professional CBS set. On its own terms, however, I found myself enjoying Adler's reading a good deal. The orchestral playing is better, presumably on account of the symphony being easier to play, and Adler's direct and unaffected approach seems well suited to the vernal, 'outdoors' mood of the work. The second and third movements respond particularly well to his unfussy direction, though again intonation can be poor, especially noticeable when flutes, E flat clarinets or horns are supporting the 'posthorn'. The mezzo gives a notably eloquent account of the fourth movement. Inevitably, there are weaknesses too. Cooke pointed out the excruciating wrong entry by the second violins in the finale (9.01ff. -why was this allowed to stand?) and the symphony's peroration is torpedoed by the sour tuning of the wind choir and a curiously abrupt last note. Adler is not the only conductor unsure how to pace the first movement. He has summer march in at a noticeably slower tempo (against Mahler's instructions) at 2304" and the transition to the recapitulation is awkward. The Fafner-like glissandos in horn and bassoon at the outset are strongly characterized, but those seismic runs in the basses are nowhere near distinct enough. Tension is allowed to dissipate.
Conifer find room for Adler's textually suspect torso of the Tenth (the first movement plus the "Purgatorio"). The violas cope well in the rarefied atmosphere of the opening, but the violins struggle later on. For once, Adler and/or his recording team do not make quite enough of dynamic markings and you may feel that a basic tempo is never adequately established. Still, the closing pages are as affecting as ever, notwithstanding a peculiarly 'twangy' and close-miked harp. All in all, this is a set of undoubted historical interest, if not quite on a par with the 'classic' Mahler recordings of, say, Bruno Walter. Those constitute essential purchases for the general collector. Adler's Mahler on the other hand will appeal primarily to Mahler completists who will scarcely believe their luck. Despite the difficulties encountered in preparing the present release, the remastering has been well handled and the notes are excellent.
-- Gramophone [2/1998]
Catalog Number: CON51279
Composer: Gustav Mahler
Conductor: Charles Adler
Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna Boys' Choir, Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Performer: Hilde Rössel-Majdan, Hilde Rössl-Majdan