MAHLER:  Symphony No. 6 in A Minor.  BERG:  Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6.  SCHUBERT: Andante in B Minor
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiberg; Michael Gielen, cond.

HÄNSSLER CLASSIC 93029 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT: 1:55:28

Several of Mahler;s10 symphonies ended up with subtitles, but only "Titan" (which he called the First for a few years, then withdrew it) and "Tragic" (for No. 6) were his own. The Second acquired "Resurrection" from the final movement's choral ode, and the Eighth was dubbed "Symphony of a Thousand" because of its pre-WW1 employment of an outsize orchestra, chorus and eight soloists. Getting rid of "Titan" (along with "Blumine," a lovely but unsuitable movement for solo trumpet and strings) was a good idea. But "Tragic" is essential for an understanding of Mahler's darkest work. The Ninth ends resignedly, but the Sixth concludes implacably.

All of the complete sets from Abbado and Abravanel to Solti and Tennstedt included it, of course. And, until Ground Zero in classical music sales around the world, there were (or had been) a surprising number of Sixths, often by conductors no less surprising. Barbirolli for instance (thumbs-down), Boulez (the iceman cometh), J”rvi (sounding as it he'd learned it on a flight from Oslo to Glasgow), Karajan (tragedy as a box of nougat-filled chocolates), even Szell (warmer than Boulez but still wintry, and schoolmasterish) - the list was both long and controversial. A fair number of opinion-mongers regarded a 1966 Stockholm performance-recording by Jascha Horenstein on Unicorn-Kanchana as the Holy Grail (I still have it, but marvel mostly at Horenstein's imperturbability in the face of much mediocre playing).

The live performances I continue to remember include my baptism - Doráti's in Chicago (as a business-like guest) - then Solti's a couple of years later (before he was knighted and began, like the Kaiser in Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten, to turn to stone), and Gielen's in October 1980 as the new music director in Cincinnati, a Sixth prefaced by Ives' Three Places in New England. The orchestra wasn't ready then yet, and perhaps still sulky since they had lobbied unsuccessfully for Kazimierz Kord (moral: never ask your orchestra to pick their music director).

Gielen returned to Germany in 1986, finished out his contract as Music Director of the City of Frankfurt, then made Baden-Baden his home base (irony of ironies after Kazimierz Kord departed in 1986). Six years earlier K.K. had succeeded the eminent Ernest Bour, who in turn had inherited the SWR (Southwest Radio) Orchestra from Hans Rosbaud following the latter's lamentable death in 1962. It had been founded by Heinrich Strobel in 1946 to be the Donaueschingen Festival's "house" orchestra, and played avant garde music perhaps better than any orchestra in Europe at the time. Gielen worked on what weaknesses there were, polished performance standards in repertory pieces from the turn of the century onward, and began a Mahler cycle in 1989 for Intercord with the first movement of the unfinished Tenth Symphony (Ernst Krenek's 1924 edition at the request of his new mother-in-law, Alma Mahler), abstemiously paired with the Prelude and "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan.

Symphony No. 7 followed in 1993 - still one of the best you'll ever hear, although the orchestra's improvement since has been a near-miracle. Their Third, recorded in 1997 (Review) by which time Baden-Baden was sharing the orchestra with Freiburg and recording live for H”nssler, is the benchmark performance for me of that work on discs. Since then the orchestra has added No. 2 (a review is forthcoming), and this Sixth (which a friend obtained for me in Berlin during January). With luck and good health (Gielen will turn 75 in July 2002), he'll complete the cycle. The Sixth, recorded live at the Festpielhaus in Baden-Baden in September 1999, is by turns ecstatic and terrifying. Gielen uses Erwin Ratz's 1960s Gesellschaft edition - two hammer-blows in the finale (rather than three); the scherzo second; the Andante movement with its "Alma" theme third, and all of Mahler's obsessive retouchings up to and including 1911, the year of his death. Gielen observes a plethora of instructions as closely as humanly possible without losing the work's musical trajectory or expressive effusion.

As one heard in the Third Symphony, and in the concluding three movements of the "Resurrection" Second, he "breathes" with the music - a quality so rare in music-making one can count the experiences of it on two hands. Gielen strikes me as quite simply the greatest Mahler interpreter overall since Dimitri Mitropoulos, and even more consistent than the missionary Greek (who made a mess, for example, of parts of No. 3). My single complaint with H”nssler is an English-language program note by David Hurwitz, "music appreciation" masquerading as highflown hyperbole. As a fellow writer (and older) I found it an embarrassment (and am unforgiving that he omitted even the year of Alban Berg's conjoined Three Orchestral Pieces, or Brian Newbould's name as the Schubert wannabe). But the music-making, both as an interpretation of Mahler's darkest symphonic vision and as an orchestral performance, is terrifying in its intensity.

The decision to follow Mahler with Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces was a stoke of intellectual genius albeit anticlimactic - the degree to which Op. 6 echoes Mahler's Sixth is uncanny (just as Berg's teacher, Schoenberg, was enamored of the Seventh, and similarly borrowed from it). But Berg's "atonal" procedure clots what was lucid in Mahler, despite the latter's use of a huge orchestral apparatus. Besides which, Berg in 1914-15 lacked Mahler's ear for subtle effects; those came later in Wozzeck, the Violin Concerto, and Lulu. As for the "Schubert" movement, conflated from a few sketches, Gielen believes that it foreshadows the later German Romantics, although this version is altogether more abritrary than the completions of Mahler's Tenth - from a wealth more of materials - that he seems unwilling to conduct. The Berg recording dates from 1993 (it hasn't the tonal amplitude of Mahler and suffers somewhat), the Schubert from 1998. They make a generous bargain for one's dollars, but you'll want - I think, I even hope - to turn off the sound after Mahler's terminal outcry. Anything afterward, for upwards of a day, is anticlimactic and risks sounding trivial.

R.D. (February 2002)