Antonio Papano isn't the first conductor to make a crusade out of improving Italy's lackluster symphony orchestras, but this is one of the boldest moves in such a crusade. When was the last time a Mahler performance from Italy could hold its head up? On records, the answer is approximately never. Yet here is a deeply satisfying Sixth Sym. with committed playing that barely falters, led by a conductor (himself making his Mahler debut on disc) with a remarkable feeling for every mood in this complex score. There is beauty and sensitivity that I never expected - among the current crop of young(ish) conductors, this Sixth puts Pappano in the same league with Vladimir Jurowski and Paavo Jarvi, who delivered such riveting accounts of the Mahler Second.
Italy has by no means been a Mahler wasteland. The program notes take pains to point out that the composer twice directed the venerable Santa Cecilia orchestra of Rome, and last year they gave a complete Mahler cycle under Pappano and Valery Gergiev. In this reading, there are signs of stiffness in the opening march, where the gait is tentative and the high note by the solo trumpet (a notoriously treacherous moment) is just a bit sour. But within a dozen bars Pappano held me and from that point never lost my attention. The Mahler Sixth can be played by rote, as David Zinman demonstrated in his literal imagination-free account from Zurich. It takes insight to refresh our experience of the symphony, which Pappano does chiefly through a kind of emotional intelligence that feels what the music is about no matter how wildly Mahler's mood swings from cold dread to tender affection, often within less than four beats. EMI's sonics are good without making you sit up, meeting the all-important demand that the listener gets involved.
The fact that this live 2011 concert proceeds at such a high level of commitment - and no serious flubs - proves that Italy is ready to put its stamp on Mahler. This Sixth is more tender and yielding than almost any I can remember since Barbirolli's, and Pappano, whose home is in the opera pit, makes sure that there is always a singing line, even in the turbulence of the biting Scherzo. The sweetness of the Alma theme in the first movement will probably catch most listeners' attention and make them notice something different here. Unlike Tennstedt, who tightens our nerves like piano wire, Pappano releases the tension quite often, running the risk that the score will turn episodic, a risk he avoids by sustaining the line rhythmically.
Given the temperament of this reading, you'd expect the Andante (placed third, according to Mahler's first intentions, which he altered at the work's premiere) to be meltingly tender, and so it is. The air of poignant mystery surpasses every other account I can remember, an effect achieved sheerly by the conductor's instinct for touching the heart - all those hours spent leading Puccini pay off. (When the cowbells enter, we could be hearing the shepherds at dawn in Tosca.) As a point of detail, I was delighted by how naturally the Santa Cecilia violins handle Viennese portamento here.
It takes patience and a long breath to handle any Mahler symphony well, and the half-hour finale of the Sixth tests a conductor to impart that patience to the audience. The anguish in the writing is prepared for by the slow movement, certainly, but how many cataclysms can one take, after all? Bernstein didn't care and successfully dragged us through the suburbs of Hell; other conductors have shied away and softened the pain. You can hear the audience stirring uneasily as the movement begins - do they know what they're in for, or are they merely being restless Italians? Lucky for them, Pappano makes magic out of the strange, dreamlike episodes that ensue, acting neither hysterical nor sleepy. "What a touch," I thought to myself, a thought I'd been having quite a lot already. The buildup to disaster is done calmly, without pushing the premonitions.
Despite the subtitle of "Tragic," I seem to have a reverse reaction to the finale - I soar with the triumphant sections of the march and don't feel that fate has pulled me under after a futile struggle. Pappano seems to enjoy these triumphal passages as well. He sustains the argument without getting too weighed down, and I must say that the musicians give their all for him while sounding in control. The two hammer blows are not particularly thunderous, by the way. A movement that can evoke despair seemed more thrilling this time.
In all, this was a great surprise. At this stage of Mahler appreciation I value Sym. 3, 6, and 9 the most, so Pappano's fresh outlook was very welcome.