Despite - or perhaps because of - Leonard Bernstein's real identification with the Mahler symphonies during the 1960s, it is easy to forget the trails previously blazed by Dmitri Mitropoulos in New York, and Sir John Barbirolli on the other side of the pond, who not only turned in some fine performances, but worked his magic in Berlin, a city that was only coming to grips with Gustav Mahler's music.
Recorded live in the German capital during January 1966, this release is an artistic and technical triumph. It's rare that I would gear a review of a 45-year old performance to both dedicated collectors and novices, but I feel comfortable recommending this release to a wide audience, and my review addresses both groups. The sound quality is well balanced and warm, if exhibiting a bit of concert hall reverberation that belies its source. The Berlin Philharmonic liked Barbirolli and responds enthusiastically to his direction. Playing alternately glows and snarls as the music demands.
Mahler's Sixth symphony is extraordinarily difficult to get right, and in matters of tempo and structure (with one or two exceptions), Barbirolli's approach is unerring. Before this purchase, I hadn't listened to Barbirolli in years. He takes a ripe, somewhat romantic view of this work, but sounds more intuitive and organic in his romanticism than Leonard Bernstein, who recorded this symphony twice. The opening Allegro takes the 'heftig' marking seriously, and in the first few moments the low trudging strings herald a slow performance, until the brass and the march theme enter at an ominous pace. The composers wishes are Allegro NON TROPPO, and recordings that flout that direction - Bernstein being a major offender in both his recordings - sound so fleet footed as if to be retreating, not going on the attack, which the music's mood calls for. Barbirolli settles into just the right martial tempo.
The Berlin strings soar beautifully in the famous 'Alma' theme, here given all the warm one can muster (luscious strings were a Barbirolli trademark). We now get into a bit of controversy, since Barbirolli ignores Mahler's express written repeat of the opening march, and heads directly into the development. On purely musical grounds, the repeat is almost a necessity. Mahler rarely included them, so this time he really meant it. Excluding the repeat, perhaps to placate a portion of the 1960s audience who found Mahler "too long", was not unheard of. Had this recording been made recently, I would have docked a star for this omission (for the last 40 years the repeat has been faithfully included, as it should).
Barbirolli places the Scherzo second. Of all the movements, I worried most about this one, but the symphonic bones rattle, and the brass respond to the grotesquery required of the music. The following Andante, which serves as an interlude before the gargantuan finale, is another pivotal part of this symphony. It's marked Andante Moderato. So which is it? Andante MODERATO or ANDANTE moderato: depending on who's conducting, it can be a brisk walk (Boulez) or a somnambulent largo (Sinopoli). From the outset, Barbirolli strikes just the right speed. This movement is lovely and bucolic, and the recording balances the wandering cowbells in just the proper proportion (if not handled correctly, they can sound like clattering garbage can lids, certainly not what the composer had in mind). This movement ends in an effusive climax which is usually handled in one of two ways: either speed up in a torrent of release, or hold back the tempo and allow a tidal wave of tone to build. Barbirolli is of the former camp, making no bones of the fact that he's going to send the music into a tidal rush. I prefer the other way, but Sir John stops just short of breathlessness, and ends on a properly wistful note.
The Finale is a special event, lasting over two thirds as long as the other three movements combined. It requires structural skill on the part of the conductor, and sustained energy from the orchestral forces. Indeed, Mahler marked it 'Sostenuto' but leavened the mix by appending 'Allegro Moderato', as if he knew that the almost demonic notes would tempt performers to get carried away. The music alternates between soaring violins and crashing blows. In between, there's a game of relentless musical pursuit, as if something unnamed but monstrous is on the way, only to return to the violins and hammer blows. This cycle repeats three times, until a cataclysm heralds an end to this, perhaps the most magnificent of all Mahler symphonies. For 29 minutes and 9 seconds on 13 January 1966, Barbirolli and Berlin got it all exactly right.
Overall, Testament deserves the utmost thanks for making this historic concert available in the best possible sound. Highly recommended.