I felt bad when Zander's Telarc Mahler cycle was aborted before it concluded, so it's good to know that the decision rested with Zander himself. I've heard his Mahler in boston with his own Boston Phil., and in concert the interpretations are strong and heartfelt. But the Telarc recordings didn't live up to his marvelous lectures, seeming at various points indifferent, lightweight, and lacking in force. That holds true here, too, so I'm not sure he deserves credit for leaving his former label holding a very expensive bag when Zander didn't approve the first Mahler Second with the same orchestra.
Formerly, the scuttlebut was that the Philharmonia didn't take to Zander's garrulous rehearsal style - professionals loathe being lectured to, unlike his pro-am boston orchestra, who adore him. There was also the question of inadequate rehearsal time; Zander's recording sessions were a fly-in and get the job done affair. Whatever the truth, there are long stretches of noncommittal playing here. The philharmonia is a premier London ensemble, playing under their music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, at an even higher level than when Zander first led them. One can easily hear that despite their skills, they are mostly coasting here.
The first movement begins with surprisingly brisk and shallow attacks form the cellos and double basses. as heard in two-channel stereo, Linn's sonics are detailed but not warm or deep. No doubt different audio systems will produce different results. The first movement proceeds with an uncomfortable relation between loud exuberance, somewhat arbitrary tempo choices, and periods of under-inflected music-making. But ensemble is unimpeachable throughout, and whatever you may think of Zander's ideas, he's not simply waving a stick.
The minuet-like second movement is very freely phrased, with stop-and-go impulses within individual bars. Is this Zander's version of echt viennese style or his idea of a parody? His fans may well appreciate his original touch. The passionate interjections in this movement are well handled and played. In the Scherzo Zander grasps that Mahler based the music on a humorous Wunderhorn song, not a solemn one, and his handling is pointed and eft. This is the best movement so far. In the short "Urlicht" song, also from the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the admired mezzo Sarah Connolly, who makes a strong positive impression in a recent release of Das Lied von der Erde, is challenged by Zander's very slow pace to make meaningful phrases. She is quite successful, musical, and moving. Her singing is a high point in this performance.
But the Mahler Second stands or falls on the immense build-up in the second half, where the composer's monumental conception leads to rapturous transcendence. The many episodes along the way are hard to unify; Leonard Bernstein's first recording with the NY Phil., on Sony, presents the ideal. Happily for Zander, this is where Linn's sonics come into their own, giving us demonstration-quality examples of massed brass playing from the outset. At full volume the impact of the percussion is nearly terrifying. On the downside, Zander tends to lose tension at the slow tempos he chooses, letting the line sag a bit. He seems to be attacking the score one episode at a time. That each episode works on its own isn't the same as building a whole cathedral.
As you'd expect from one of Europe's best choruses, the choral contribution from breathless hush to commanding oration is beautiful, and beautifully captured on disc. Zander luxuriates in the sound, perhaps too much at such a slow tempo. Swedish lyric soprano Miah Persson isn't allowed to appear magically out of the choral sound because she is so closely miked, but her singing is as accomplished and musical as Connolly's - I can't imagine what another reviewer is complaining about. At a certain point Zander begins to noticeably drag the pace. I found my attention wandering. The climactic peroration will satisfy audiophiles through its clarity and visceral impact, but we are getting to Heaven on a slow boat.
In the end, there are too many great "Resurrection" symphonies on disc for Zander to compete with. Leaving aside the grand old ones, the past few years have seen sterling examples from Paavo Jarvi, Vladimir Jurowski, and a previously unreleased Tennstedt concert version that outstrip this new one by a considerable distance.