So far along, Gergiev is right in the process of giving us a full Mahler symphonies cycle. So far, these musicians/label have released the first, sixth, and seventh symphonies - each derived in live sessions mixed from several concerts at London's Barbican home for the band. I have auditioned each one so far in multichannel super audio. My choices so far in this series are the first and the seventh. I was fully prepared to welcome and embrace the whole series if the results persuaded me, but alas, I do not so far find the sixth symphony to be completely persuasive, vivid and successful as it no doubt is when taken solely on its own Toscanini-like terms. To my ears, this sixth is strong, but so devoted to relentless forward drive that I feel the contrasting lyrical dimensions of the sixth are compromised. Toscanini supposedly said of Bruno Walter, Oh Walter, when he hits something nice he melts and goes all to pieces. Gergiev can relax, certainly. Though nobody would ever accuse him of doing a Bruno Walter when it comes to melting, floating textures or lyricisms. So far in Gergiev and Mahler readings I miss the incredibly deft genius touches of, say, a Jascha Horenstein who could somehow mystically combine high lush sweetness with heart-aching, bone chilling Late Romantic Weltschmerz.
So we come to this third symphony. Again it is mixed from live concerts in the Barbican, from just about a year ago in 2007. The sound is accurate and vivid, with kudos going to veteran James Malinson and his technical team. I again am listening in multichannel. Let's go movement by movement.
The first movement is impressive. The opening fanfare does not quite scare the daylights out of me, as the famous Horenstein Third fanfare somehow still does every time I play it. (Good thing I lucked out by getting Horenstein to the fav shelf way back, when still available, as I think now he is out of print. Worth the effort to go hunting, I still think. I also sometimes still wish Wyn Morris had recorded the third symphony.) Yes, Gergiev is typically forward moving through the whole first movement. He does allow pauses and plenty of space to breathe at times. His drive does not to me compromise getting at some potentially raw, chilling sense of the deep, mysterious, fearsome shadows that the Nature God Pan casts in the deep heart of the mountains and forests, even at noonday.
The second movement is well nigh musically priceless. Gergiev gets his band to float and dance, charm and reminisce, and hard forward rhythmic or overall tempo drive never for even a fleeting mini-second intrudes or glosses over or rushes too hurriedly. This movement genuinely captures a chamber music lightness and intimacy that has not exactly been plentiful in the Gergiev Mahler series discs to date. The brief episodes which prefigure the posthorn to come are supple and tender and emphasize the third's through line of evolving continuity to an extent that other conductors do not always convey.
Hearing all these wonderful touches in the second movement, I began to really get my hopes up for this third. I thought that maybe Gergiev was going to end up being Horenstein's interpretive equal after all, albeit in his own typical way, even taking account of the forward drive that strikes me as a sort of hat tip to Arturo Toscanini.
My first audition of this reading was on portable player with ear phones. That time, in red book CD stereo, I could hardly hear the beautiful posthorn solos of the third movement - if at all. Touches of the solo phrases still dimly remained in passing, but listening on the portable with earphones, the counterpoint and accompaniments to the solo - which eventually garland and ground its wistfulness - giving the whole episodes a structural impact in addition to the expressive touches - were too loud, too prominent, imagining the solo my only recourse. Uncomfortably so. This reminded me of the aural distance problem of the solo as captured in Benjamin Zander's otherwise authoritative Telarc super audio recording of the third symphony. Count dim this hearing of the posthorn solo, a troubling failure, then. In fairness I knew I needed to listen again on the home rig, in multichannel, to see if the dimness and distance of the posthorn solo stayed consistent.
In the home rig round, the surround sound did a much improved job of allowing the all-important posthorn solo to be present, coming through. Gergiev starts off the scherzo-like third movement with the intimate touches with which he so endearingly played the second movement. Even when the tempo speeds up and woodwinds squeak garishly or brass bray, he can return to the mood and color of the earlier music. So Gergiev and band layer mountain meadows posy charms with folk tales and fireside hearthside country warmth. Although now aurally present, the posthorn solo hovers just on the ghostly ethereal brinks of disappearing, and to tell the truth, I still hear this as a passing minor musical flaw. Distancing and dimming the solo player may well have served in the live concert, given the real physical acoustics of the hall. Yet I do not hear that it all quite works in recorded home listening. In portable red book stereo listening, the posthorn solo may as well not exist at all, and this detracts from what Gergiev and band are no doubt trying to offer us. By the end of the movement, with the remainder of the orchestra joining in, the Nature God Pan and minions are reappearing, though the uncanny chill is markedly diminished. It is as easy to feel that maybe we have imagined it all in a Grimm Brothers fairy tale reverie, instead of a frightening live encounter with some raw and deified animal nature that would just as soon eat us as look at us unmoved, impassive, impervious to our humanity. The brash, toothsomely grinned coda however might remind us otherwise, of Pan in the first movement.
In the Nietzsche text movement that follows, alto Anna Larsson is lovely and steady. She is supposed to be singing of deep mysteries, glimpsed and felt and heard right at the stroke of musical midnight, after all. Now Ms. L does not quite eclipse sung memories of, say, Jesseye Norman, or Dame Janet Baker - but she is herself very nicely, and her singing renders comparisons more odious than not. Woods, brass, and strings nicely inflect and counterpoint her solo song - again with a transparent chamber music intimacy that is closer to string quartet or string sextet than to symphony. Tief ist ihr Weh. Lust, tiefer noch aus Herzeleidt.
Next comes the brighter bim-bamm sonics of the Lustig Wunderhorn song movement, livened up with that enchanting - even arch - combination of boys choir, women, and the alto soloist doing another musical scene all together. It is inevitably part and parcel of the composer's controversial musical genius that he can draw upon folk poetry texts set to folkish music as a way of giving us a homespun interlude after the deep longing and pain of Nietzsche's midnight, invisibly opening the doors to God.
So the final movement follows right upon the Wunderhorn song. Gergiev and band start it off with much of the same delicacy and chamber transparency that they have shown in the second and third and fourth movements, especially. A seemingly facile, ineffable flow of folksy and intimate string band textures somehow adds to the listener's imperceptibly accumulating grasp of the third - all of one piece, not a disconnected parade of externally-derived program music. The last movement proceeds with a masterly growth, evolving magically into the reaches of the large orchestra entire. Woodwind and brass entries do not at first perturb the music's intimate touch, though wrenching enharmonic string and brass perorations soon reveal to us how profoundly all personal tragedies are suffered and survived by being human tragedies. First the strings then the rest of this large orchestra, more and more come to embody what human love embodies and reveals of God - just pretty much as Mahler told others who talked with him in letters and conversations about what made this new third symphony tick.
By the end of the symphony, I count this Gergiev release as among his most successful overall, as well as being a clear high point in his ongoing Mahler cycle. Indeed, to my ears, Gergiev could well have used the same genius to further improve his worthwhile reading of the first symphony, both in regards to the nature picture painting and in regards to the multiple meanings and functions of the folk roots.
I still prize Horenstein. I'm adding Gergiev to the fav shelf.