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4.5 Stars for this superbly recorded and played set but with too many idiosyncratic touches to be an outright recommendation,
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This review is from: Mahler: Symphonies 1-3 (Audio CD)
In the 1970's Bernard Haitink expressed his exasperation with the " Tyranny of the Complete Cycle", whereby record companies and promoters insisted upon these cycles irrespective of whether the conductor had an affinity with each of the works in the cycle-he was in particular referring in his own case to his reluctance to perform and record Mahler's Eight Symphony.
The result is that I struggle to think of a complete Mahler set where I unreservedly enjoy all the symphonies-not Tennstedt, not Boulez, not Abbado, certainly NOT Haitink and not even Bernstein. This is but a handful that I could choose, but the set that comes nearest to all out enthusiasm is the set recorded in the 1980's by Lorin Maazel and the incomparable Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the only complete set to feature this greatest of all Mahler orchestras.
It is a controversial set in many ways-Maazel as ever follows no "standard practice" and has studied the works afresh; delivering exquisitely played and recorded performances -which many find too idiosyncratic to bear!
His penchant for broad tempi and sense of great architecture at the expense of quirkiness does not strike a chord with all listeners-but I love it with my only reservations being in the Eighth (as usual!).
Almost 30 years later, Maazel returned to these monumental works in a concert cycle in London 2011, two of which concerts I was privileged to attend. The whole cycle has been recorded live by Signum and will be released in segments throughout the coming year.
The orchestra is the Philharmonia, for whose players no praise is high enough-the weight and richness of tone coupled with stunning virtuosity means that these recordings rank with the very best in terms of execution, and the recorded sound in the vastly improved acoustics of the refurbished RFH is superb. Detail, balance and weight are managed to perfection.
The first 3 symphonies are included in this mid price set, and these were the three most contentious on the Vienna set because of tempo. Some of this contention remains, but in other areas Maazel has adopted a more conventional approach, with the loss of some of the individuality of the earlier performances, but with perhaps a broader appeal.
The Vienna First Symphony was dismissed by many because of the slow tempo which Maazel adopted for the opening and especially the extraordinary drawn out and "loping" Landler of the Second Movement. Once I became accustomed to it, Maazel's approach seemed absolutely right, but in this recording the First Movement is slow but not overly so, and the Second Movement zips along as one of the faster readings! The remainder is pretty conventional and what results is a very fine First Symphony in the standard vein, less distinguished by individuality than the earlier reading but with presumably a wider appeal.
For many years I assumed that I was the only living person apart from Maazel who liked his idiosyncratic reading of the Second Symphony, but it appears that I am not alone after all.
Maazel's approach was long and slow-very slow-with a massive architecture building up to a colossal climax. Only Tennstedt in his EMI studio version exceeded this, but in this new version Maazel runs Tennstedt close.
This reading IS slow-hewn from the ether in massive sonic blocks-and is even slower than the previous version-BUT-there is more rhythmic variation at times which lifts the performance.
It is a slow grind, but worth the perseverance as the climax is truly massive and hair raising.
The offstage effects in the finale are very well caught, the "March of the Dead" lasts so long that many of the audience will have expired, and will only rejoin their families at the Resurrection!
The 2 Soloists, Sally Matthews and the ubiquitous Michelle De Young are excellent, especially Ms Matthews who soars in the finale.
Maazel has always been unafraid to do it how it how he sees it, and this unrepentant and eccentric reading will not appeal to all, but it is a mighty journey and a pilgrimage worth making every so often.
The Vienna Third was praised for being exquisitely beautiful-but criticised again for being too slow, especially in the finale. I love it but accept that it is an acquired taste.
In this performance, the highlight of the set, Maazel nudges the opening tempo along just a tad quicker, and is faster and more shaped than in his earlier version-and the result is a triumph.
The sheer weight of the sound, the fabulous trombone slide in the opening statement, the structure and detail are all superb. It's a BIG reading-every note is imbued with significance-and there is always a sense of a massive power about to be unleashed.
In the central section of the first movement, the passage that Richard Strauss characterised as like "the mass of workers unleashed from enforced toil for a few hours rushing headlong and inexorably to enjoy the pleasures of a holiday festival", Maazel repeats the square rhythms of his earlier reading rejecting Strauss's vision and placing this firmly in the barracks across from which Mahler lived throughout his childhood and whose martial music so influenced his compositions.
We are on the parade ground during the inspection of some pompous "Pickel Haubed" potentate, and this works very well.
The second movement has more lilt than previously, Sarah Connolly is an excellent soloist, the choirs are first rate and the "bim-bams" have more swing than previously.
I miss the almost unbearable sense of nostalgia that Maazel generated in the Third Movement with the VPO-many felt that Josef Pomberger's post horn was placed too distantly, but the effect is magical and the duet with Wolfgang Tomboc's French Horn is exquisite and NEVER fails to bring a tear to my eye.
In the concert environment of this performance, the balance is much more forward and less magical, and we hear a flugelhorn rather than a true post horn, but it is all superbly accomplished.
In the big explosion of power (a "borrowing" from Liszt's Transcendental Studies), the harp glissandi are well caught, and the movement ends in a lively frenzy.
The biggest change is in the finale. The Vienna Finale is SO slow that it comes near to losing the musical argument entirely and was a major stumbling block for many critics.
In this version, Maazel adopts a near ideal tempo shaving over 5 minutes off his earlier reading, and the concentration of the musical line is exceptional, and the glorious climax has a genuine ecstatic release. This 3rd emerges as a secure recommendation.
The overall verdict on this set is sonically "WOW", artistically more of a mixed reaction, largely because of the approach to the Second Symphony.It's certainly not run of the mill, but neither is it the whole story.
Well worth exploring at the cost, this set provides fascinating insights into these works, and frequently takes the listener on a different journey from the usual one through the mind of Mahler, but even I as a declared admirer of Maazel as an artist recognise difficulty with some of the interpretational aspects of this set, so the recommendation is with caution.
5 Stars for recording and playing, but 4 stars for interpretation not because it is deficient in any way but because its individuality at times will not suit everyone. 4.5 Stars Overall. Stewart Crowe.