If a listener has auditioned the Mahler ninth symphony with this same orchestra under this same conductor, then we already know pretty much what to expect. Or, do we?
The framework or approach that was stunningly on display in the prior Mahler release is also more or less, continued here in the sixth symphony. As with the ninth, so with this sixth: the Philharmonia of London is simply giving itself to the music, in top form, including a familiar musical flood of virtuoso chops.
As in the ninth, I have little doubt that some listeners will register disappointment at Salonen not drawing more heat from this big-sized music, along with letting the music just run wild according to its own deserts. However, as I was not among those critics for the ninth, so I am still not a joiner. I think that Salonen and the band simply unfold an intense vision all their own, perhaps Mahler as modernist, just as much as Mahler as Late Romantic. Thanks to the bottomless virtuosity of the orchestra players in all departments from first note to last - all caught live in concert, by the amazing way - we get a chance to get involved with this symphony in a new way.
One of my benchmark keepers on the fav shelves is Jascha Horenstein leading the Danish Radio Orchestra - not this sort of virtuoso band, I admit. To my ears the Horenstein reading is nearly indispensable for its abilities to reveal a deep Mahlerian world of suffering and survival, despite the band not being in, say, the world's top five ensembles. The iconic chord, more often than not published by the brass (with support from the woodwinds) really chills the grieving soul in Horenstein's reading. Salonen and company are at first appearance, more restrained, more in control than overwhelmed by the break through of unavoidable loss that seems to be indicated by the simple shift from major chord to minor chord.
But I kept listening. And as the symphony unfolds, I became more and more and more involved ... more and more and more persuaded. The composer is laying out this music on the grandest scale, along with giving listeners a profound polyphony that, arguably, intensifies and continues a dimension of symphonic development that Mahler saw fit to deepen, starting with his fifth symphony. As in Salonen's take on the ninth, this sixth is simply an amazing yet disorienting musical event. Hearing the whole thing through is a little bit like finding oneself, inside one of those Escher drawings that grabs you and occupies multiple angles and perspectives, all at once, despite the physical fact that what is happening is written down on a flat page. Salonen and colleagues draw us into a similar real that is both magical and vaguely, persistently frightening, perhaps as if Escher had gone to music school.
Again the entire symphony is exposed, uncovered, xrayed to pieces throughout all four movements. This would be a fatal risk ... if this were music were nothing but a long-winded sibling of Richard Strauss, Liszt, and maybe, Reger. Salonen and company show us precipitous heights, and wind-swept dizzying ice sheets of sound, of chilling empty vista, only to drop suddenly back into valleys where human life, human feelings still exist. The whole music of the sixth is crystalline, and as in Salonen's ninth, the music often seems like gigantic lead crystal, outsized, ringing.
As the sixth rings out, it also freezes and burns.
I can hardly imagine a greater contrast, say, between this Salonen sixth, and the new release of the same symphony, led by Pappano in Italy. That release catches its own fires, takes its own risks in a distinctly warmer tone. Pappano also inhabits the sort of large expressive musical canvas we might associate with Verdi's Requiem for Manzoni, or in historic literature, with Dante's trilogy. Any addicted afficianado of the sixth will probably consider getting both new releases.
Meanwhile, particularly if we limit ourselves to single disc readings, this Salonen-Philharmonia sixth is its own sort of trans-dimensional, sub-atomic musical astrophysics. In this universe, as Mahler once said, a symphony must be large enough to contain the whole world. And Salonen has his players let loose in a cosmos of spinning galaxies, black holes, stars going nova, and gravity bending time and space.
As with the Salonen Mahler ninth, this sixth stretches to slightly new and frightening realizations, particularly in the final movement. Salonen and players simply ramp it all, up a few notches, and the Finale is freezing, burning tragedy on the largest imagine-able scale.
This Mahler disc begs to be a keeper, then, just as the Mahler ninth disc did. But I predict incisive dissents, and at least some listeners who find this sort of Mahler unappealing, wrong-headed, unconvincing. My view is that, I hope Salonen and the Philharmonia get to continue their Mahler series. Fully charged to keep giving us this sort of new take on Mahler. I am deeply curious about how this approach to the composer would sound, in the seventh symphony, for example. And Salonen lights a whole vista of the fifth, sixth, and seventh as among the most brilliant jewels in the Mahlerian crown jewels. Whether a listener takes to this way or not, one can hardly conclude that Salonen and players confine these three symphonies to the orphanage of middling expectation where we tended to put them, fascinated more with the first four symphonies, or with the last three completed.
Again, five stars. Empty as far deep space, colder than tundra near either earth pole, fiercely burning like a solar flare shooting out across impossible distances. Five stars worth.