This is a very fine Mahler Sixth, a recording that is certainly justifiable as part of the Tonhalle's ongoing cycle of the Mahler Symphonies. However, this performance could not have been released at a worse time. I the last decade, there have been more Mahler Sixths than even the most die-hard Mahler fans (and there are many) could possible listen, including (but certainly not limited to) the following: Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony in 2001; Christophe Eschenbach in Philadelphia; James Levine in Boston; Ivan Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra; Haitink (again) in Chicago; Abbado (again) with Berlin; the London Symphony Orchestra twice - once with Mariss Jansons and again with Valery Gergiev; Mariss Jansons (again) with the Concertgebouw; Benjamin Zander with the Philharmonia; and Lorin Maazel with the Philharmonic. And these recordings are only in the last ten years, to make nothing of the now classic recordings of Mahler by the likes of Bernstein, Haitink, Tennstedt, Gielen, Inbal, and Chailly to name just a few. So it seems rather silly to compare Zinman's interpretation to the competition; rather, understanding Zinman's interpretive point of view is much more instructive.
Listeners that like their Mahler to sweat blood and tears may find Zinman's approach somewhat "dried eyed," for lack of a more appropriate term. His horns don't wail and wallow in lachrymose, the winds don't screech and scream, and the brass as a whole is kept firmly in check by Zinman's steady hand. However, Zinman's succeeds with his keen intent on presenting Mahler as a symphonist. Mahler was aware of his important position in music history, as the last great symphonist of a tradition begun by Haydn. Zinman understands this and his interpretations are less about superficial details than on architectural scope, shaping movements rather than moments, and driving towards climaxes with unfaltering concentration. Thus, Zinman's first movement sounds more "classical" than many, but it is Zinman's ability to shape the music and maintain concentration throughout that makes the movement as a whole more satisfying than recordings by conductors that may indulge in histrionics. This holds true for the magnificent andante (placed second), which is handled as a true andante, flowing magnificently under Zinman's baton. The alpine episodes balance bucolic charm and stormy excitement quite well while the great climax is satisfying both emotionally and musically (cow bells fully audible), leading to the movement's touching close. The Scherzo (placed third) is reasonably paced which allows Zinman to elicit some truly gruesome sounds from the orchestra. In the trio, Zinman capture's Mahler's cheeky humor while still maintaining a sense of child-like simplicity (Alma said the trio was a musical depiction of children at play, although whether that is true or not remains questionable).
It is in the finale, however, that Zinman really delivers, from the portentous introduction to the allegro, benefited greatly by clearly etched bass lines, reinforced by some superb tuba playing. Zinman's phrasing and sense of architectural scope is quite magnificent; listen to how the development moves towards each hammerblow with march-like intensity of how Zinman maintains excitement without sacrificing textural clarity. The recapitulation further builds tension, with each thematic reoccurrence tempered with added gravitas, leading to a satisfying coda and conclusion.
If I liked this release perhaps more than I should have, forgiving Zinman's failure to dramatize climaxes or the general dynamic ceiling pervading the performance as a whole, I found Zinman's refusal to make the performance about anything other than the music refreshing. With so many conductors adding unnecessary rubatto, creating false excitement through vulgar tempos shifts or indulgent dynamic extremes, Zinman focus on architecture, melodic line, and on presenting a cogent, cognizant symphonic soundworld is a welcome respite from the hundreds of recordings that create superficial excitement by taking every interpretive pit-stop, forsaking the musical journey as a whole. For those that like fire and brimstone, Zinman's Mahler will seem too cool and even-tempered. But for those who are looking for a satisfying and magnificently presented performance that from start to finish has a clear interpretive point of view, Zinman's Sixth (and the cycle as a whole for that matter) will be a pleasant surprise.
Sonics throughout are wonderful, clear, and the engineers have captured the capacious sound of the Tonhalle wonderfully, both in stereo and SACD. The orchestra is equally magnificent, violins antiphonally placed, violas left, cellos and bases right.
On a final note, I would also like to commend RCA for its recent reemergence as a leading source of quality classical recordings. After a disastrous 80s and 90s, BMG's merger with Sony has seen improvements for both labels, but especially for RCA, which has produced a small, but immeasurably satisfying catalogue in the last five years, from a reference Paris Symphonies Set from Harnoncourt, fabulous violin recordings from Nikolaj Znaider, and Paavo Jarvi's brilliant and awe inspiring Beethoven cycle with the Deutshe Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. Bravo!