Good grief - the hits just keep on coming! With this being a Virgin Classics release, a lot of emphasis is placed on the vocals, so I'd like to start with that first. The chorus, Spain's Orfeon Donostiarra, is the same chorus employed in Claudio Abbado's Lucerne Festival performance (DG) from just several years ago, and what an outstanding job they do - both soft and loud! They don't sound huge, but they sing with great discipline, uniformity, and a surprisingly wide dynamic range for a relatively small chorus. The soprano contribution is rather minimal in the fifth movement, but Natalie Dessay is easily up to her usual high standards. A slight let-down is the mezzo-soprano work of Alice Coote. She's not bad, mind you, but neither is she up to the exalted levels of Birgirt Remmert (Ivan Fischer/Channel Classics), Anna Larsson (Abbado/L.F.O.), or Christianne Stotijn (Haitink/C.S.O.). That's not to mention the outrageous job that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson turned in on the otherwise so-so Tilson Thomas/San Francisco recording. Get the idea? . . . there are tons of options when it comes to Mahler. There are also a number of logistical problems and "extra-musical" ideas when it comes to the Mahler symphonies that employ large forces, so I'd like to tackle those issues next.
The end of the symphony - THE most important section for me, as a listener - is done quite well. There's tons of pipe organ, which is essential when you consider that Mahler writes fortissimo with the additional words, "all stops out" (alles werke). After the chorus cuts out, the alternating salvos from the deep bells and two tam-tams (large orchestral gongs of indefinite pitch) - simply marked as being of low and high pitch in the score - are sufficiently clarified. Without getting too technical, The F.R.S.O. uses very heavy, large diameter Wuhan "Chao Gongs" (you can see them quite plainly on the promotional Youtube excerpt). These are marvelous instruments, but, for my taste, they're simply not struck hard enough. You can still somewhat hear them because they're quite large. But a bit more "splash" on the sound wouldn't have hurt. Still, with the excellent and bass-rich sonics that Virgin Classics has provided us, this ends up being one of the better endings in the discography. Especially when you throw in the above mentioned choral work too (and don't forget that organ that sounds like a 727 on take off!).
Paavo Jarvi paces everything quite nicely through the closing pages - pulling back on the reins where it's effective, and lunging forward where the music can absorb the additional excitement. In general, Jarvi makes strong contrasts between fast and slow sections throughout the symphony. The most obvious example of this happens in the final minute of the first movement. There, he takes the slow funeral cortege at almost a snail's pace, but then races full speed on the movement's concluding, descending run. At times, these contrasts can sound a tad immature. But then again, we have to remind ourselves that this is only Mahler's SECOND symphony; it shouldn't feel like a bad Bruckner 8th. Anyway, I want get back to those logistical problems.
There are several spots in the finale where offstage brass play a very important function. In general, they're a tad too distant on this recording. Before the climax of the fifth movement's long march section, offstage trumpets and percussion (bass drum/cymbals) start out in the far distance, then move forward as we approach the noisy climax to the march. Here, Jarvi starts them out a bit too far, and so they don't move in close enough before the entire orchestra jumps back in at a full fortissimo. The percussion are nearly inaudible as well. While this isn't a deal breaker by any means, it's a logistical issue that so seldom gets executed the way it was fully intended. It's for this reason, along with the differences in mezzos, that I still endorse the Ivan Fischer "Resurrection" on Channel Classics; even if that recording strikes some folks as a bit too objective and slightly cold. It's also more naturally recorded, and that brings me around to the all important issue of sound quality.
For the most part, the sound is outstanding here. But it's a bit gimmicky too. The harps, in particular, are pumped way forward during climactic passages. While I like that effect, the two sets of timpani get sucked into the same microphones as well. Fortunately, the timpani playing is spot-on in terms of rhythmic accuracy, tuning, and following Mahler's dynamic outlines. It's sort of an object lesson for budding timpanists, but that's not exactly what Mahler intended either. Still, I'll take a bass-rich recording that's a tad gimmicky than one that ignores the lower end of the audio spectrum altogether. Trust me, that happens. Now for the play-by-play.
Mvt.I - Clocking in at 23 minutes, Jarvi very much reminds me of Stokowski and Andrew Litton in this movement. It's a bit spacious, but rhythms are always crisp. Most important, the movement's central climax has plenty of grinding dissonance and physical heft. Here, Jarvi's penchant for big contrasts in tempi comes to the fore.
Mvt. II - this Intermezzo type movement is done superbly well. Jarvi proves, once and for all, that conjuring up Viennese coffee house charm doesn't mean having to go slow. The fast sections really move forward. I very much enjoy Jarvi's performance of this movement, clocking in a bit less than 10 minutes.
Mvt. III - I prefer that the scherzo proper be taken a tad slower than it is here (Klemperer; Fischer), thus bringing out the ironic humor behind St. Anthony's sermon to those indifferent fishes. But Jarvi positively nails the climax to this movement, with its foreshadow of important things to come in the finale. Those assisted harps make a huge impression at that climax too. Good stuff!
Mvt. IV - As previously mentioned, Alice Coote isn't as strong as she probably should be. But Jarvi shapes the brass chorale behind her quite nicely. This is the weakest movement in the performance, but not a deal breaker for me either.
Mvt. V - I've already discussed the logistical problems involved. What I didn't mention is that most of the lengthy march section is done exceedingly well, with Jarvi executing subtle and not-so-subtle gear changes along the way. In spite of the offstage brass being a tad too distant, the climax to the march section comes off better than most. The ending, with only very small reservations (the gongs), is one of the best ones you could possibly sample. As previously mentioned, the chorus does a lovely job throughout their lengthy, soft passages as well (before we get to the end). Jarvi's 35 minutes is well within the norm, if that means anything.
In spite of the small negatives that I have pointed out, I still feel that this is a very strong front-runner in the Mahler 2 sweepstakes. By all accounts, it's probably more viscerally exciting than the Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics (which I still prefer on the whole). Currently, Paavo Jarvi has become a default "go-to" guy for most standard orchestral literature, and he doesn't disappoint in this colossal side-show of a symphony. These very same forces already have a more-than-decent performance of Mahler 3 that can be fully viewed on Youtube. While certainly not needed, perhaps Virgin Classics could be persuaded to issue that as well.