In this recording, Eschenbach repeatedly has his players do things that I tend to find irksome. He's one of those conductors who seem to think Mahler's "nicht eilen" means "slow down", whereas it only means "stick to the tempo, for as an experienced conductor I, Mahler, know very well that orchestra's tend to rush in passages like this". He also doesn't mind ignoring tempo indications altogether, or instigating tempo changes several bars before the point where the score has them. Every second transition is preceded by a huge ritenuto, some in the first movement so quirky that I got the feeling the score was missing a beat. Yet halfway through I was ready to throw the score aside altogether and just wallow in all the beauty, power, emotion and sheer musicality. In spite of (or maybe even thanks to?) the liberties they take, Eschenbach and the Philadelphia O plumb the depths of this music in a way few others have achieved, least of all the recent, much overrated Abbado. You need to turn up the volume to benefit from the full effect of this recording, and even then the first movement may strike you as just a tad too genteel. But it's "reculer pour mieux sautir". The Scherzo is raw and dark and its lonely, desolate ending is deeply affecting. The Andante gets simply the most beautiful performance in any of the 11 recordings I know of this work, Chailly, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Karajan, and MTT among them. It acquires a prayerlike quality and a deep sense of mystery, the strings even contriving to realize Mahler's peculiar request to play "ohne Ausdruck" (without expression) - and that's a compliment. The sprawling finale is firmly held together, and combines waves of increasing power with passages of quiet repose that for once sound as more than an excuse to give the players a moments rest. The placement and sonorities of bells and cowbells are perfectly judged. Throughout, the sounds emanating from the orchestra are breathtakingly beautiful, and fortunately the recording allows the listener to hear almost everything.
The recording is indeed a wonder in itself. It was made in the excellent Verizon Hall - live in concert, as occasional stiffled coughs soon make clear. Yet it leaves almost nothing to be desired. The bass is rich and present, tuba and bass drum coming through spectacularly. And the hammer, well, I seriously wonder whether it didn't damage my headphones; it may not sound like the stroke of an ax, as Mahler imagined (more like a bomb exploding), but its effect is overwhelming. There is bite to the brass, the horns are well-defined, and the woodwinds are not covered up by the strings the way they are in Berlin. The timpani are a bit boomy, and harp, xylophone and celesta sound rather distant, but that's about as much as there is to complain. Except of course for the applause that is left in at the end. Why?? Here's a piece where after the final chord all you want is silence (indeed, no applause would be the greatest token of true appreciation in concert, even), but no: the hollow pizzicato has barely sounded out or there are the hollering bravo's. Weren't these people listening at all? Inevitable in a concert hall, I suppose, but why leave this in on CD? It's completely pointless. Nevertheless: if you're looking for a top-choice modern Mahler 6, buy this disc (and get the rarely recorded early Piano Quartet as a bonus!); just make sure you have your remote handy towards the end.