Two Mahler Sixes Trace Shift From Hare To Tortoise

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A Michael Gielen memorial album contains two performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. (cincinnatisymphony.org)

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 – 1971 and 2013 performances. SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg, Michael Gielen (conductor).
SWR Classic SWR19080CD, three CDs. Total Time: 172:51

DIGITAL REVIEW – Ever wonder how much a conductor can change his or her mind about a piece of music over time? As a memorial to Michael Gielen, the German-born former music director of the Cincinnati Symphony who died in March at the age of 91, the SWR Symphony – an orchestra that Gielen was close to over a long span of his career – has released two of his performances of Mahler’s turbulent Symphony No. 6 that couldn’t be more different.

This really isn’t a new idea, for the Berlin Philharmonic did the same with Simon Rattle in January, issuing two performances of the Mahler Sixth from 1987 and 2018 on the same album. But the differences in Gielen’s performances, spaced 42 years apart, are startling, even revelatory, a total rethinking of the piece.

The first Gielen performance is a studio recording from 1971 that, according to the booklet notes, was once “pirated” and released on cheapo labels under a variety of false names! It is fast, propulsive, perhaps a bit clinical, not quite latching onto the Sixth’s roller coaster of high hopes and bitter blows. It does, however, place the Scherzo movement second and the Andante third as Mahler’s original published version did – which I find makes a great deal more musical and emotional sense than the other way around.

Gielen eventually came to the conclusion that his and other conductors’ Mahler performances were much too fast, and he began a long process of gradually slowing them down (the timings on a second Gielen recording on Hänssler Classic from 1999, also with the SWR Symphony, confirms this). In addition, subsequent research published by the Kaplan Foundation has led to an “official” opinion that the Andante should always be played before the Scherzo. Gielen reportedly continued to believe that the Scherzo-Andante order was correct but decided to try out the Andante-Scherzo sequence anyway.

So from the 86-year-old Gielen comes this 2013 live performance at the Salzburg Festival – same orchestra, though surely with many different players – and you would swear it was the work of another conductor. Whereas the 1971 performance clocks in at a fast 74:10 – and 1999’s is right in the middle at 84:46 – the 2013 performance lasts a staggeringly slow 94:25. The opening march falls in with the heaviest tread I’ve ever heard, heavier even than that of John Barbirolli’s powerful recording, and it stays that way throughout the long symphonic journey.

The debate rages on about the order of the middle movements of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

Yet with these tempos, Gielen has found the emotional core of the symphony. The big moments are inexorably built up so that they drop like trip hammers; the rhythms have a more solid footing as rooted in this weighty foundation. Not only that, for the first time in my experience, the Andante-Scherzo progression makes some sense: the slow speeds set up each succeeding movement with more of a feeling of continuity, overcoming what tends to be an awkward transition between the quiet end of the Scherzo and the finale. Be that as it may, I still prefer Scherzo-Andante, which has more compatible transitions and key relationships.

The sound is quite good in both performances, and the third disc also contains a few comments by Gielen in an interview – in German, but there is an English translation in the booklet. If you are looking for an unusual holiday gift for your favorite Mahlerian, he or she should be fascinated with this set.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.