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This review is from: Mahler: Symphonies 1-10; Totenfeier; Das Lied Von Der Erde (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) [Blu-ray]  (Blu-ray)
During Mahler's lifetime few orchestras had as great a rapport with the composer as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Rejected by other cities and musicians, Mahler had a working relationship with the Dutch orchestra and its chief conductor Willem Mengelberg that was crucial. The tradition continued after Mahler's death and into the second half of the 20th century with Eduard van Beinum and subsequently great Mahlerians such as Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Chailly and, now, chief conductor Mariss Jansons.
Between September 2009 and June 2011, the orchestra dedicated itself to a complete Mahler cycle, including Das Lied von der Erde and Deryck Cooke's performing version of the unfinished 10th, conducted by Daniel Harding, Jansons, Iván Fischer, Daniele Gatti, Lorin Maazel, Pierre Boulez, Fabio Luisi, Haitink and Eliahu Inbal. The results have now been released on DVD and BluRay and are dazzling testament that the Concertgebouw is one of the finest and most dynamic orchestras working today.
The strings are gutsy but warm, attacking counterpoint and then weaving pained elegies. Woodwind is always in tune, plangent before turning sour as Mahler's ironic temperament kicks in. The horns and brass likewise strike a balance between thrill and thunder. Effects are born out of this well-oiled and terrific-sounding colossus, part and parcel of Mahler's all-encompassing world of sound. Collectively it is enormously powerful.
Harding begins this great journey with a zesty 1st Symphony. He occasionally verges on micromanagement, yet there is always urgency and, when required, a sense of mania. It is that spirit that Gatti carves his performance of the 5th Symphony. The really snappy first movement has a malevolence that then cowers and turns to mourning, creating the requisite tension to trigger the ensuing movements. Gatti's focus really ups the ante, so that Mahler seems more hysterical and therefore more jubilant at the close. It is the best performance in the entire set.
Even the 4th Symphony, sometimes breezed over as a transitionary work, is suitably re-charged by Fischer. Wedding the Concertgebouw's big sound to a consistent pursuit of clarity, Fischer refuses to take this heaven-bound narrative lying down. The only disappointment comes when Maazel doesn't take the same approach with the hellish 6th Symphony. The RCO brings bite to the performance, but Maazel's prosaic tempos turn tragedy on its head. He places the scherzo before andante, but rather than underlining the cruel relentlessness of the work, it shows how short Maazel falls in delivering its feral spirit.
In Jansons's hands, the three 'choral' symphonies likewise steer clear of hysteria, though with much greater results. In the 2nd Symphony, previously released on CD (with bonus DVD), Jansons unmannered approach allows the vast architecture to speak for itself. In the 3rd, he exposes the fracture of the first movement's ebb and flow, ferocious one minute, sickly sweet the next. The slow and therefore not entirely certain unveiling of an ascent to heaven is totally heartbreaking. With the orchestra finally moving as one in the finale, Mahler's hoped-for glories have never felt closer.
In the 8th Symphony, however, Jansons reveals a more troubled heart, not least in the long introduction to the second part of the symphony. This is, far and away, the darkest music in the cycle and the whole performance is grounded by its sense of dark reflection. The soloists are even more introspective in their response to the braying 'Veni, creator spiritus'. Jansons is clearly not afraid of showing just how heterogenous Mahler's language is, much as Boulez does in the decidedly disparate 7th Symphony. Boulez seems permanently fascinated by what is emerging on the page rather than the stage, often lost in the score rather than communicating with the players. Consequently, this is far from radical vision of the 7th, yet released from such interpretative gloss it shows greater affinities with the 4th Symphony than previously communicated.
Equally unexpected is the final triptych's refusal to capitulate to silence. Here, Luisi, Haitink and Inbal communicate a tenacious almost confident hope in the future. Luisi is particularly luxurious with Das Lied von der Erde - coupled to a savage Totenfeier - which is helped significantly by Anna Larsson's wonderful burnished voice. When she speaks of eternity at the end of 'Der Abschied', it is not the lost paradise it can so often seem, but indicative of a better world beyond the martial mania of Mahler's earlier music. Both Haitink and Inbal embrace that future, pushing through the valedictory finales of the 9th and 10th Symphonies with great resolve. These are not cowered afterthoughts, but essential missives of unfinished symphonic business.
The filming of this extraordinary odyssey is universally strong. The cameras are alive to details within the scores, jumping between departments to highlight individual solos. The films likewise give a strong sense of communication between the conductor and orchestra, particularly thrilling with Harding's wild platform manner and Gatti's cause and effect approach in the 5th. There are one or two bumpy edit points and the sound feels slightly compressed during tumultuous climaxes, but such foibles never dim the overall experience.
So, despite a passive 6th Symphony, this new set is an essential addition to the Mahler discography. Avoiding neurotic clichés, the works appear as redolent as they did when Mahler stood in Concertgebouw. His name now beams down from the balcony, captured on film behind each of the chosen conductors. Mahler would no doubt be thrilled to know that his music has so many superb advocates, of which the Concertgebouw is no doubt chief among them.