MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A minor
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 4773 (F) (DDD) TT: 79:37

In February 2002 I reviewed Michael Gielen’s 1999 live recording of the Sixth on two Hänssler discs which a friend, subsequently deceased, brought me from Berlin a month earlier. It was a long review although disc performances by Mariss Janson, Michael Tilson Thomas, Bernard Haitink and Benjamin Zander have been released since, as well as a reissue of Haitink’s 1968 version in a Dutch tribute album. None of the interim four have I heard or reviewed – I was awestruck that much by Gielen’s approach to the music and the remarkably sonorous and muscular playing of the Baden-Baden/Freiburg Orchestra he inherited three years earlier. Now, however, from DGG/Universal comes a new version, recorded live during Abbado’s return to the Berliner Philharmonie podium in June 2004 for the first time since his resignation in 2001. The orchestra plays as if he’d never been away, or that Simon Rattle, his successor, has been adding to his own Mahler cycle there.

This new Sixth joins the Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth that Abbado made with the Philharmoniker just before and after radical surgery for cancer in 2000 that removed his stomach. It is inexpressibly touching in the same way his Ninth was, not least for the luminous sound the orchestra musters – at its most beautiful almost translucent – without stinting on power or tragic passion in a reading that darkens into “Tragic” as the work progresses. This is Abbado’s third, surely valedictory, recording of the work (first there was Chicago, then Vienna, now Berlin), and it inhabits a spirit world beyond the expressive poignance of the previous two, fine though moments were in both. Here he neither stints at the beginning nor overplays the A-minor anguish that Mahler revealed straightaway, but the first movement is not in itself climactic – befittingly that is saved for the half-hour finale. Abbado plays the Andante movement second, as the composer himself did at the 1906 premiere in Essen and again at the first Viennese performance in January 1907, although later he published the “Wuchtig” Scherzo second, before the Andante (with its love music for Mahler’s by-then-unfaithful wife Alma). I’ve always believed the original second movement should have remained where it was first placed, both in terms of relief from the Sturm und Drang sections of the first movement and given its key relationship to what preceded and followed. In the event, Abbado plays it with a tenderness that verges on the unearthly, then follows with a scherzo that finds Mahler vacillating emotionally between gruff agony and memories of gentler times. The contrast is almost painful to hear as Mahler’s sense of loss is overcome by outbursts of anger, only to end in quiet despair.

In the finale, however, her husband’s desolation cannot brook Alma’s deceit. And here Abbado builds from sadness verging at moments on madness (just two minutes into the movement) to levels of agony that include the two famous “hammerblows” (Mahler wisely removed a third). What instrument was employed we’re not told in Donald Mitchell’s otherwise superbly argued program note, but it has the sound of doom no other performances I know come close to. This is not a reading of the finale entirely without hope, but hope is transitory: the die has been cast, and when the end comes it is emphatically tragic. Nothing can ever be the same again.

Having been so moved by Gielen’s version, I replayed it between auditions of Abbado’s Berlin insights, and was startled to find him altogether heavier – unleavened emotionally, even in the “Alma” Andante – as if Mahler had sequestered himself in a dark room from which he refused to emerge. Now it may be that Gielen (and I’m keeping his version) has a grasp of the Mahlerian Angst that Abbado tempers with his own survival of rather worse than a faithless wife. Remember, it was not until 1907 that Mahler learned of his heart condition, which he survived for four more years. But the further bonus of the Berlin Philharmonic’s superlative playing – their sheer range of tonal and dynamic expression – makes Abbado’s newest Sixth transcendental in his own canon, and one of the glories in DGG’s pantheon.

R.D. (July 2005)