Mahler Sym2 PTC5186992

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

The third instalment of Semyon Bychkov’s Mahler symphony cycle with the Czech Philharmonic brings us to the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. The previous releases have been the Fourth and Fifth symphonies; I thought both were admirable, especially the Fifth.

These days I seem to have little time for leisure listening as opposed to hearing discs for review purposes. However, by sheer coincidence, a few days before starting work on this new Bychkov recording I listened again to Otto Klemperer’s 1961/62 EMI recording. That has been part of my collection for many years but I recently acquired Warner Classics’ box of remastered Klemperer Mahler recordings in which the sound in which we hear ‘Resurrection’ – and the other works – has been given added impact (review). Largely, I share Dan Morgan’s admiration for Klemperer’s trenchant, unflinching reading of ‘Resurrection’. However, over the years I’ve come to feel that at times the conducting is a bit gruff. This chiefly reveals itself in a somewhat unyielding account of ‘Urlicht’ and also in the passages in the first movement where Mahler pauses the inexorable tread of the funeral march for a moment or two of nostalgic recollection.

I mention this because Semyon Bychkov, like most conductors in my experience, observes much more readily than Klemperer did, Mahler’s instructions to relax the pace for the moments of reflection in the first movement. His core speed is firm and energetic but, for example, at 6:04, he lingers over the episode which Mahler marked Sehr mässig und zurückhaltend (very moderate and held back). Arguably, he lingers just a little too lovingly, but the orchestral playing is so beautiful that I’m convinced. During much of the movement, though, Bychkov’s conducting is taut and dramatic. The Czech Philharmonic supports him with plenty of power whenever the music calls for it. I was impressed by the inexorable build up (from 20:00) to the movement’s end. Overall, this is a compelling account of the first movement.

The Andante Moderato movement has the subsidiary marking Sehr gemächlich (Very comfortable/leisurely). Bychkov obeys that injunction to the letter. The music has a lovely, easy flow. The playing is finely detailed; I love, for instance, the way the cello counter-melody sings warmly and affectionately at 3:10, ideally balanced against the material in the first and second violin parts. The last few minutes of the movement, beginning with the string pizzicato episode (from 7:20), is delivered with winning delicacy; in these pages, Bychkov and his orchestra catch the nostalgia in the music in an ideal way. Some may think that the very end of the movement, exquisitely shaped, is just a bit too loving and slow but I believe the end justifies the means.

The third movement is outstanding. Here, the playing is sharply detailed, not least by the tangy woodwinds. So piquant is the playing that the sardonic humour really comes across.

Elisabeth Kulman sings ‘Urlicht’. Her voice is not as individual as some singers I’ve heard – say, Janet Baker or Christa Ludwig – however, I liked her singing a lot. Her tone is pure and clear and she offers an unaffected performance of the song, which I find is very touching. Bychkov paces the movement very sensibly, giving just the right amount of time and space for the poetry – significantly, he takes 5:29 compared with Klemperer’s rather brusque 4;04.

The vast finale is very successfully handled. The offstage instruments make their mark. Bychkov’s reading is full of drama and incident, most especially in the long passage that follows the solemn intonation of the ‘Resurrection’ chorale by the brass (6:44). The Czech Philharmonic’s playing is thrilling and as I listened, I thought, yet again, how daring and wild Mahler’s music must have seemed to the symphony’s early audiences. The tumult just before the grosse Appell is frighteningly intense. The grosse Appell itself is atmospherically rendered. Pentatone divide the finale into two tracks, the second of which begins at the first entry of the chorus. The Prague Philharmonic Choir make a fine showing, singing with a fine dynamic range. Christiane Karg and Elisabeth Kulman make impressive contributions. Bychkov brings the symphony to a suitably affirmative conclusion.

There’s a great deal to admire about this performance: the orchestral playing is superb and highly idiomatic; the solo and choral singing is excellent; and Semyon Bychkov has the full measure of the score. I don’t think anyone investing in this recording, especially those who are collecting the Bychkov cycle as it unfolds, will be disappointed. Bychkov’s performance may not match the white-hot intensity that Klaus Tennstedt brought to the work (review) but it’s still a considerable account in its own right.

While I’ve been weighing up this recording, the sound has attracted some adverse comment. My colleague David Phipps, in the course of a very detailed and thoughtful review of the high-res download, expressed concern over a lack of bass in the recording which made it difficult to hear the string basses, the tuba, timpani or bass drum at times. He also commented that, in the closing pages, the organ pedal was inaudible. At the time of writing, there have also been a couple of comments on our Message Board, one of them quite critical. I have listened both through Monitor Audio loudspeakers and through Beyerdynamic headphones and I have a mixed reaction. I concur with the comment about the organ pedal – the manuals sound clearly enough, though. The other bass instruments register – especially through headphones – though I agree their sound could be more pronounced at times. I noted, however, that I had to increase the volume level on playback to get the best results; perhaps the dynamic range of the recording is, on this occasion, just a bit too much of a good thing? I think the recording, overall, is good though not quite as successful as the vivid sound in which Bychkov’s performance of the Fifth is presented.

Pentatone offer this performance, which plays for 86:52, on a single CD; that’s the longest disc I have ever encountered.

This is a welcome addition to the Bychkov cycle; the next instalment is awaited with interest.

John Quinn

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