Mahler Symphony 2 Bychkov Pentatone PTC5186992

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No 2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (1888-1894)
Elisabeth Kulman (alto), Christiane Karg (soprano)
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Czech Philharmonic/Semyon Bychkov
rec. 2018, Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic
German texts and English translation included
PENTATONE PTC5186992 [87]

This is the third entry in Semyon Bychkov’s ongoing Mahler cycle with the Czech Philharmonic on the Pentatone label, having been preceded by the 4th Symphony (review and review) and 5th Symphony (review, review, and review).

Pentatone used to be a surround sound supplier, but nowadays they seem to be producing only stereo recordings, which is the case with the Bychkov-Mahler cycle. As with the 4th and 5th Symphony recordings, this is being released on a standard CD (due for release shortly after this writing), as well as a high-resolution stereo download, already currently available from various classical download retailers.

If I am reading the forthcoming physical CD release information correctly, then the entire 87 minutes of this recording is apparently being squeezed onto one disk – an impressive achievement, I must say, and fortunate for everybody’s wallets as well.

For this review, I listened to the high-resolution stereo download (96 kHz/24-bit for audio junkies). A pdf-format booklet was included with the download. The booklet notes are mostly quite good and very thoughtful, putting a great deal of emphasis on the spiritual nature of this “Resurrection” Symphony and what might have been going through Mahler’s mind in that regard during the compositional process. In a nice touch, the notes also include some comments from Bychkov himself on this aspect of the score, revealing that he apparently takes the spiritual side of this music very seriously in forming his interpretation. This produces some unique qualities to his performance, as we will see shortly.

My one caveat about the notes is that there is no mention of Mahler’s feeling constricted from being able to complete the symphony after his disastrous piano-version preview of the first movement for Hans von Bülow. The notes do make a passing mention that, at Bülow’s funeral, Mahler heard, for the first time, Friedrich Klopstock’s poem “Die Auferstehung” (“The Resurrection”), which provided some of the text for the final movement, the rest being written by Mahler himself. What the notes leave out is that it has often been thought that the funeral also served the purpose of releasing Mahler psychologically to be able to finish the Symphony, and additionally, in Klopstock’s poem, giving Mahler not just some of the text, but also the concept for the final movement as a whole. I would think this should be important background information to provide for potential first-time listeners.

The Czech Philharmonic brings some unique qualities to a Mahler performance. They have one of the warmest, most velvety sounds I have ever heard, and that is true in all sections of the orchestra, strings, woodwinds, and brass alike. (Sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to describe any percussion section as “velvety”, with all due respect for their unquestioned excellence and professionalism.)

Where many Germanic orchestras have a “dark”, heavy sound that lends plenty of power in louder passages without getting strident about it, the Czech Phil’s unique sound adds the quality of textures and chords having an added richness of inner voices that fills out the overall sound very nicely, oftentimes to the point of true gorgeousness. This is a definite characteristic of the present Mahler 2nd recording.

Semyon Bychkov has clearly given a great deal of thought to this score, not only how to judge the usual concerns of tempi, orchestral balance, and stylistic details, etc., but also how to present the expressive, spiritual side of it to the listener. While not going outside the bounds of Mahler’s wishes as written in the score, Bychkov has thoroughly re-imagined the melodic phrasing of virtually every passage. I have 29 different recordings of Mahler’s 2nd in my collection (there, I have just self-certified myself for the funny farm), and I do not exaggerate when I say that this Bychkov recording is the most melodic and songful presentation of this music that I can recall ever hearing.

In phrase after phrase, the orchestra does a stunning job of playing through the notes, of keeping their airstream or bow movements sustained, pushing each note into the next and giving a strong sense of forward direction to what could be just a random series of notes in the hands of less-skilled performers.

There are frequent occasions where various melodic figures have accents or swells marked by Mahler to emphasize important points, and these are certainly rendered with loving care, but in addition, as the melodic figures come to an end, the musicians can also be frequently heard audibly giving those figures an extra push as a transition into the next moment. I especially noticed this in the Dias Irae brass chorale segments during the first half of the finale, but it is truthfully scattered throughout the whole symphony. The effect is marvelous, not only just for listening pleasure, but also because it has a wonderful quality of binding everything together, so that the symphony’s massive, overarching structure becomes more clear, giving us a better sense of where we are in the overall progression toward the ending climax.

Also regarding structural considerations, if one merely looks at the timings in the booklet, then Bychkov’s tempi look to be a little bit on the slow side. Eighty-seven minutes is certainly somewhat longer than most of the recordings I have. While listening, however, I did not notice any sense of sluggishness whatsoever, but rather, a feeling of deeply-held contemplation. As our guide through the journey of this symphony, Bychkov wants us to take the time to consider all the marvelous details that make up the whole. Each one of these details is given a generous helping of expressiveness, of springiness in the more animated sections, and when called for in the strongest passages, plenty of power that is fully capable of pinning us to the back our chair.

All the tempi, in relation to each other, are well-considered and finely judged by Bychkov, keeping all the various parts of each movement in proportion with each other, and, on a larger scale, the five movements in proper balance with each other as well. I do not recall ever once thinking that something didn’t sound “right”. And I’m here to tell you, that’s almost unheard of in Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. I could point you to time after time after time in my collection where I want to ask the conductor, “What on earth were you thinking?!” Not so in this recording. I just keep thinking to myself, “Excellent!” over and over again.

Within the context of his contemplative tempi, Bychkov nevertheless keeps the proceedings moving along steadily, never getting bogged down, but also never short-changing anything. In the process of this inexorable forward progression, the symphony’s structure “feels” apparent, even from the first half of the first movement’s exposition. The massive, apotheotic finale is always sensed out there, looming in the approaching distance.

A few specific things worth pointing out: The Ländler second movement is, quite possibly, the most lovely presentation I have ever heard of it. The “velvety” sound of the Czech Philharmonic is ideally suited for this movement. (The word “woodsy” also comes to mind, if that helps any with conveying the idea.) Ländler figures are given a perfectly judged lilt, while balances are so finely tuned in the inner voices that one can’t help but revel in the sheer opulence of so much sonic splendor.

As an example of Bychkov’s structural acumen, about three minutes into the ländler, Bychkov deftly avoids a trap which many conductors fall into, of allowing a new cello counter-melody to overpower the violins, who are playing the first melody from the beginning of the movement. As beautiful as the cello counter-melody is here, it’s very easy to simply turn them loose, but then the movement’s structural considerations suffer somewhat. This is no problem for Bychkov, however, who keeps the two voices well-balanced with each other. The ländler also features a generous helping of portamenti from the strings, brought to the fore enough to sweeten the overall presentation, but not so much that our eyes lose sight of the bigger picture.

Both of the soloists, Elisabeth Kulman and Christiane Karg, exhibit much of the same melodic tendencies as the orchestra, using their air to sustain the notes into each other as much as breath allows, showing us that Bychkov is influencing the singers just as much as he is the orchestra. The ladies’ tone qualities sound to me quite appropriate, nicely matched, and well-suited to this score. As can be seen with a concert photo in the booklet, they are up on the organ balcony along with the chorus, where Christiane Karg can suitably emerge upwardly, out of the chorus, and their duet as the closing approaches is able to mesh perfectly with the overall sound picture, rather than sticking out at the front.

I haven’t discussed the sound engineering yet because this is the one thing that bothers me about this recording. Everything about the sound is absolutely perfect, except for one thing. There is very little bass in this recording. It’s difficult to hear the string basses or the tuba, and the tympani as well as the bass drum are nearly inaudible, inexplicably. Additionally, the organ’s pedal register is almost impossible to hear. With so many other factors about this recording being so magically wonderful, some might think this is only a minor consideration that hardly bears attention. But what we’re talking about is that the symphony’s climaxes, especially at the all-important ending, are seriously robbed of impact and sonic power.

At first I thought maybe it was just me, that I might be merely having an anomalous episode of bass “junkie-ism”, or something along those lines. So I started whipping out other recent Mahler 2nd recordings from my collection that also offer high-resolution sound like the present Bychkov. I tried Chailly-Amsterdam, Fischer-Budapest (review), Thomas-San Francisco (review and review), Nott-Bamberg (review and review), Kaplan-Vienna Phil, Vänskä-Minnesota (review and review), and some others as well, to check myself. Without saying anything good or bad about each of these recordings’ interpretive and performance issues, nearly every single one of them does have the amount of bass that I would have expected, providing plenty of sonic impact. So then I went back to the Bychkov, just to be sure. Nope, not enough bass. Not even close.

It pains me greatly, because were it not for this one considering factor, I could very happily tag this review with a “Recommended” appellation. But with the climax(es) of the whole symphony coming up short because of this problem, I just can’t do it.

So you, the listener, have to decide for yourself. If you have a listening setup where you can, perhaps, crank up the bass a long way, then it might not be a problem for you. Or maybe you have a listening situation where bass is not a big factor, for whatever reason. In such an instance, you can rest assured that virtually every other aspect of this recording is of the highest quality, especially Bychkov’s interpretation matched with the beautiful sound of the Czech Philharmonic.

But if you want the climax(es) to have a sonic impact that is at least similar to what would be the case in a live concert setting, then I’m afraid this recording comes up tragically short.

David Phipps

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