Mahler: Symphony No 6 / Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

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MAHLER Symphony No. 6 & Riccardo Chailly, cond; Gewandhaus O ACCENTUS 20268 (DVD: 86:25 + 18:28)

& Panel discussion with Riccardo Chailly and Reinhold Kubik

A Mahler Sixth in which the Andante movement comes second? And where the last movement has two hammer blows, not the three that Mahler himself included at the premiere)? Well, yes, and those are just two of the things that make Riccardo Chailly’s interpretation of this over-familiar work sound new. Another is the incredibly swift, truly scherzo-like tempo with which Chailly takes the (now) third movement, not at a pace mimicking the first, as usually happens when it comes second.

Some of the mystery is explained in the 18-minute conversation that Chailly holds in the bonus feature. The “wrong” order of the movements (Allegro energico, Andante moderato, Scherzo, and Finale: Sostenuto) is how they appeared in the conductor’s score that was actually published in March 1906. By the time a second score was published in November of the same year, the Scherzo now came second, and this is how it was premiered. In addition, the premiere had three hammer blows in the last movement, not the traditional two; that came later, too. Early in the interview Chailly admitted that he had copiously studied the scores owned by conductor Willem Mengelberg, who had known Mahler and who wrote down all sorts of things, including metronome markings (usually not in Mahler’s symphonies), that he slavishly followed for years. “But now,” Chailly says, “I am no longer such a slave to tradition.” Musicologist Reinhold Kubik of the Mahler Society mentions that when Mengelberg wrote to Alma Mahler about the order of the movements, she said that the Andante came second—and she stuck by that judgment even as late as 1957. Was she wrong? She did mention that he had conducted it that way in a city where he never played this work, but memory is a tricky thing, and the fact that she emphatically insisted that the Andante came second in letters written some 40 years apart should count for something.

Whatever your judgment of these decisions, there is no question that Chailly’s Sixth is simply mind-boggling. The first movement itself is taken at an Allegro that is certainly more energico than I’ve ever heard it before in my life. In a certain sense, this new, brisker tempo rather eliminates the feeling of jackboots marching that most other conductors bring out in it; rather, it sounds like the blind rush of a madman, interrupted by the calmer middle section.

But there is much more to Chailly’s Mahler than just faster tempos. There is a much stronger feeling of organic unity and structure in the music, a more songful legato line in each and every movement, and the playing of the Gewandhaus Orchestra is staggeringly beautiful and dramatically effective. Chailly seats the orchestra the way Mahler himself wanted it: first and second violins split left and right, cellos in the middle right behind them, other instruments spaced out so as to create the balances Mahler so carefully constructed. (Michael Gielen seated his orchestra the same way when he conducted Mahler in Cincinnati during the 1980s.) The “traditional” seating used by most orchestras, Kubik tells us, originated from that used by Leopold Stokowski when he conducted Mahler in America in the early-to-mid 20th century. And in the last movement, which runs 34 minutes, Chailly creates a world-within-a-world. His hammer blows are not just some bangy little hammer on an anvil, but a HUGE wooden mallet that looks like it needed Thor to handle it.

On the podium, Chailly presents the image of an excited schoolboy, jumping up and down, raising his arms and slicing his baton through the air like the drop of a guillotine. Perhaps it is a bit overdone, especially if you are accustomed (as I am) to watching such conductors as Kempe, Böhm, Toscanini, Gielen, and Ormandy conduct, but it doesn’t really seem like an affectation, either. Most of what he does is either in response to the music or in anticipation of how he wants the next attack or the next phrase to go. He is simply emotionally involved in each and every bar of the score, and he wants it just so. Considering the great results he gets, I can’t really find much fault with that. After all, he does ask all the principal wind players to stand up and take a bow at the end.

So often, for me, watching a conductor perform an orchestral concert is a bit like watching paint dry, unless you are a really big fan of conductor X and you want to study the way he moves on the podium, but in this case I found myself completely caught up in watching Chailly and the orchestra because they’re so deeply into what they are doing. In the trailer on this disc for his video of the Fourth Symphony, Chailly mentions that both he and the Gewandhaus Orchestra musicians have come to an understanding of how to best play Mahler: They get involved but always remain in control. “If you let Mahler control you,” he warns, “you’re heading for trouble.” In addition to all this, the high-resolution digital sound is as spectacular as Chailly’s interpretation, capturing the slightest rustle of harp strings and the sound of stays on the oboe with astounding clarity.

Looking at the trailers, there are also DVDs out of Chailly conducting the Second, Fourth, and Eighth Symphonies. The snippets I’ve heard of all of them sound amazing. I recommend looking for all of them, and also awaiting the rest of the series.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ACC 20268

  • UPC: 4260234830545

  • Label: Accentus

  • Composer: Gustav Mahler

  • Conductor: Riccardo Chailly

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra