MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in D minor "Nature"
Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano; Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir; Tiffin Boys' Choir; Philharmonia Orch/Benjamin Zander, cond.
TELARC 3CD 80599 (3 CDS for the price of one) (F) (DDD) TT: 33:55 & 65:43 plus 76:30 discussion

Until this commanding performance, I had read about but never heard any of Benjamin Zander’s Mahler recordings for Telarc with the Philharmonia of London. Like No.6 before it, a third disc contains a spoken analysis by Zander that persons who don’t yet know the Mahler Third – his longest work and severally challenging to newcomers – are advised to hear first, then the music. Ironically, Zander comes at the end of a period that saw two lesser performances sweep the recent Grammy Awards: Pierre Boulez’ version with the Vienna Philharmonic (REVIEW) (“best orchestral playing” as I remember) and Tilson Thomas’ San Francisco entry ("record of the year"). (REVIEW)

First things first, Zander is a conductor with eminent credentials as well as a hypnotizing confèrencier. One needn’t agree with everything in his spoken thesis, or necessarily with his adherence to a quite detailed “scenario” that Mahler wrote while composing the piece. To say that “man” makes no appearance until the fourth movement when the alto soloist sings a slowly undulating setting of Nietzsche’s “O, Mensch! Gib acht” from Zarathustra, ignores the military marching bands whose appearances are so terrifying in the first movement (as they were to Mahler the child). And the “posthorn” serenade in the third movement – which is virtually inaudible here at its first entrance, then comes nearer and recedes – would need a player on the mail stage. One doesn’t mean to nitpick, but ex cathedra comments are all the more dangerous in a lecture as engrossing as Zander’s (which he also, they say, gives at performances with his student players of the Boston Philharmonic).

As in most performances, the opening movement poses superhuman problems not only for the orchestra over more than half-an-hour’s playing time – Zander takes 33:55, traditional in our time – but for the conductor. Zander has solved dynamic challenges and instrumental balances satisfyingly well, but includes caesuras that sectionalize what is basically sonata-form structure – shared in part by Telarc’s arguably excessive range of dynamics, from whispering bass drum to outcries by a Wagner-sized orchestra with eight French-horns. When, however, Zander digs his spurs into the music, the impact is full-throated and room-filling. I suspect a mixdown from Hybrid SACD (although these CDs bear the “Direct Stream Digital” imprimatur, with a sampling rate of 2.8224 mHz). From the first movement on, apart from dynamic-range extremes, Zander is most persuasive. He refuses to dawdle over or sentimentalize the second movement Minuet, and evokes the Alpine countryside in the “Comodo, Scherzando” with a refined sense of poetry, plus a real period posthorn found in a Vienna shop (rather than the trumpet traditionally substituted). In the “Misterioso” Nietzsche movement, Finnish mezzo Lilli Paasikivi is as fine as anyone who has sung this music on disc, while the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and ladies of the London Phil Chorus tintinnabulate in the fifth movement. (That the boys were stationed behind Zander, some 200 feet from the ladies, suggests an SACD alternative forthcoming). And the mood does briefly darken at the end, as it did in Michael Gielen’s performances, evviva! The finale follows without the usual long pause and is mellifluous in the way Abbado phrased it in his DGG issue last year. Zander’s timing is a comfortable 23:25, and although it seems for a fearful moment at the end that he may prolong the last chord beyond its proportional value (as, alas, Abbado did in both his Vienna and Berlin Phil versions, the second of which I might otherwise be tempted to recommend).

Although I hadn’t listened to them for at least a decade, I dug out Pro Arte cassettes of Vaclav Neumann’s Czech Philharmonic version and, to my delight, found it still sonically impressive as well as tonally characterful and idiomatic. In fact, had not Supraphon coupled it in a 3-CD set with an Eighth Symphony of insufficient character or vocal parity among the soloists, I’d have the Neumann/CzPhO set at hand as well as the Gielen/SWR version on Hänssler, whenever time allowed and the mood upon me to spend between 90 and 100 minutes with the Third of Mahler. But this is not to downplay the merits of Zander and his associates on discs at best of outstanding quality. For newcomers to the music, three discs for the price of one that include an exegesis of the music wins a blue ribbon and shelf space.

R.D. (March 2004)