VINE VOICEon 10 August 2005
Perhaps not the best of Rattle's Mahler series, this one, slightly let down by some of the recording and a slightly disappointing lack of cohesion about Rattle's conducting of the huge final movement. Nevertheless, Sir Simon is never less than interesting in his Mahler and here he has things to say and points to make that will always have their justification if you refer to the score.
First, the debated issue of the ordering of the two middle movements. It seems to me that, in terms of authorial validation, you can pretty much take your pick. There is a case, based on Mahler's practice and comments, to be made for either option. Rattle takes the Andante second and the Scherzo third. I have to admit I find this the less satisfying of the options. The Scherzo seems to me a kind of nightmare commentary on the first movement, the march rhythms and themes seen through a distorting mirror where 3/4 and 4/4 time get confused and where the xylophone - used for colour in the former movement - becomes a fully-fledged Mephistophelean protagonist. (I know Mahler talked at one time about children at play in this Scherzo, but children can be pretty devilish and adept at distorting grown-up things). For this reason, as with the comparable movement in the Fifth Symphony, it seems to work better when the two movements are juxtaposed. Key relationships don't really come into it as the Andante is in such a remote key from either of the other two movements that it is clearly intended as a strong contrast wherever it is placed.
That said, these two middle movements are probably the ones that come off best in this performance. The Andante in particular seems truer to the composer's intentions than most. Rattle sees it as a real andante and not a kind fledgling Mahlerian Adagio. It is an interlude from all the A Minor grimness surrounding it and many conductors take it far too slow, trying to make it a companion to the adagios in Symphonies 3, 9, 10 and Das Lied. Not Rattle: he seems to have precisely the tempo juste. He also brings out the view that it is as much Mahler exploring harmony as melody. If the Adagietto of the Fifth is about harmonic sleight of hand, misguiding the listener into expecting harmony to go one way, then slipping through a Neapolitan Sixth to somewhere else entirely, the Andante of the Sixth is about bass-lines underpinning shifting harmonies and providing them with a solid grounding. Rattle is excellent at giving these lines in the lower strings their full weight in the orchestral balance. But this is where the recording doesn't really help - at the big climax where the celli and basses descend inexorably to their home (cf. the comparable point in the Finale of VW's Fifth), the sound is fudged: it lacks the clarity this moment cries out for. This tends to be true throughout and is unlike most of this series - the middle and top are fine here, if a little strident with the brass in full flight, but down below the bass stave things get a bit murky and imprecise.
If I'm critical about Rattle's handling of the outer movements, it is by comparison with his own exceptionally high standards in the series. The big climax of the first movement, for example, with the Alma theme complete with timps, triangle and all, soaring to victory over the forces of A Minor, doesn't deliver the same visceral, cathartic, symphonic punch one has come to expect from Rattle at comparable points in, say the 2nd, 3rd or 8th Symphonies. And the Finale, though it starts well with a fine atmospheric slow introduction, ultimately lacks the cohesion of symphonic thought that Rattle achieves in other sprawling Mahler structures - say, the equivalent movement of the 2nd. The three famous hammer blows (all three are here, by the way) provide the structural pillars of this movement - or maybe they're the opposite of pillars, whatever that is, going down not up. Here, they seem to be just pauses in the ever increasing hysteria of brass on brass. It all becomes almost too insistent (maybe Mahler is partly at fault, too).
As always with Rattle's Mahler, this is a performance that is well worth hearing: he always makes you think about the score and the music. But by his own high standards (and that of his EMI engineers), not the best in the series.