Mahler: Symphony No 2 / Levine, Vienna
It’s a matter of some regret that James Levine and RCA never completed their Mahler cycle, especially as this conductor is one of the finest Mahlerians around. Indeed, I’d suggest his recordings of the First and Third Symphonies - with the LSO and Chicago Symphony respectively - are among the most desirable in the catalogue. Thankfully, Sony-RCA have reissued the entire set, giving veterans the opportunity to re-evaluate these performance and new listeners the chance to discover them. And to complete the picture - well, almost - we now have this live Resurrection from Salzburg, with the incomparable Christa Ludwig in ‘Urlicht’.
From the first bars it’s clear this is going to be a tough, no-nonsense reading, made all the more visceral by the dry, close recording. Don’t expect the highest fi - editing is a little untidy, with a curious pre-echo reminiscent of LPs at the very start - but that hardly matters when the performance is as incisive as this. Levine doesn’t resort to expressive underlining, preferring instead to press ahead with astonishing clarity and precision. In many ways his approach reminds me of Jonathan Nott’s taut, propulsive version - - which was one of my picks for 2010. It couldn’t be further from the self-conscious, ill-conceived posturing of Stenz and Jurowski, two real let-downs among the recent crop of Mahler 2s.
Despite the relatively narrow soundstage, dynamics are well managed, although the timps are apt to crack like rifle shots and the cymbals are a tad reticent at times. But goodness, there’s a drive and passion to the music-making that brought an early attack of the goose-bumps, something normally reserved for the symphony’s closing pages. As for the downward figure at the end of the Allegro it’s on the slow side, but in the context of what’s gone before it sounds just right. Oddly, the engineers are slow to fade the audience noise, which continues for quite a while. As usual, the first movement is contained on a single disc.
The dance rhythms of the Andante are made to bounce and bend in a way that seems uniquely Viennese, although some listeners might want more schmalz than Levine allows. And despite the occasional imprecision, the Wiener Philharmoniker sound crisp and clean, pizzicato strings well articulated, the woodwinds and harp nicely caught; but, most important, the essential pulse is never lost. If there’s a downside, it’s that a degree of warmth and charm is sacrificed in the recording. Still, there’s a lightness of touch here, a directness of utterance, that’s hard to resist.
As for the strange Scherzo, Mahler’s danse macabre, it’s spookily done, rhythms winningly inflected and climaxes properly scaled. No empty rhetoric here, just a firm, unfussy grasp of the music’s architecture and a clear sense of its ultimate destination. And while that seismic shudder may sound a touch restrained it has a sense of proportion and rugged purpose. In that sense Levine’s is a somewhat ‘straight’, almost old-fashioned reading of this symphony, but that’s the way I like it. Indeed, it makes a refreshing change from the expressive liberties of, say, Bernstein and Tennstedt in this work.
We slide rather too quickly into ‘Urlicht’, Christa Ludwig’s distant star glowing in a vast, inky universe. At this point studio recordings tend to capture more nuance and loveliness - or an intrusive vibrato - so this swift rendition of ‘Primal light’ may seem less lustrous than most. That said, the orchestral supernova that follows is mighty, the brass and percussion emerging with a rare blend of grace and grandeur. And what a powerful sense of implacability there is in the build-up to the timp-led crescendi, what breadth in the passages that ensue. This performance simply grips me in a way that neither Stenz nor Jurowski does, Levine thrustful and thrilling at every turn.
The off-stage brass are certainly atmospheric, light vying with darkness in the prelude to that - very - hushed choral entry. There’s a shiver-inducing, ethereal quality to their singing that’s intensely moving, Levine coaxing the orchestra into some of the most radiant playing I’ve heard in ages. Battle and Ludwig are very well matched, if a little far back, but that simply adds to the otherworldly character of this unfolding drama. ‘Bereite dich’ is reverent rather than commanding, Levine gauging climactic strength to perfection. And even though the organ isn’t very prominent, this finale blossoms with a light that’s simply blinding.
This is a Resurrection of insight and honesty, eschewing all artifice and cutting to the very quick of this great symphony. It’s that rare thing, a genuinely transfiguring performance cast in the mould of Walter, Ormandy, Kubelik and Klemperer. And in a double centenary that’s yielded its fair share of disappointments, this recording will revive the spirits of those for whom it’s been a long and tiring journey.
Surely one of the great Resurrections of our time.
-- Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: ORF-C837112
Composer: Gustav Mahler
Conductor: James Levine
Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Performer: Christa Ludwig, Kathleen Battle