Mahler symphony 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. 2018, Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic
German texts and English translation included
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
PENTATONE PTC5186992 [87]

It is a very curious turn of events that Semyon Bychkov, once the nearly man of conductors, has been transformed into one of the hottest tickets around. His story ought to be an encouragement to any younger musicians feeling despair at a career that feels like it is going nowhere. Of course, conductors have always tended to improve with age but even so the limelight now beaming down on Bychkov, largely thanks to his developing Mahler symphony cycle of which we have already had No.s 4 and 5, is something rather out of the ordinary.

This catapulting into stardom has a lot to do with the rapport that has sprung up between him and the wonderful Czech Philharmonic. I would hesitate to call this a Czech view of Mahler – if nothing else Bychkov isn’t Czech – but there seems a natural fit between the orchestral colours of the Czech orchestra and Mahler’s orchestral writing in much the same way as the sound of Vienna Philharmonic in a different way also seems peculiarly idiomatic to Mahler. If nothing else, Bychkov seems to relish and seek to promote what makes the Czech Philharmonic sound unique rather making them like everybody else. There is, for example, a natural unaffected lilt to the main section of the second movement of this Mahler 2 that recalls the Dvořák Slavonic Dances. You just can’t teach this stuff.

We have now arrived at the Resurrection symphony and I am happy to say that all of virtues of the previous two instalments are vibrantly present on this new recording. There is no getting round the fact that melodrama does play an important part in this work and without careful balancing with more musical elements it can turn into a bit of a Barnum and Bailey three ring affair.

A lot can be told about an interpretation from the opening not the closing movement. A surprising amount of that finale might be described as stage management where the first movement is a proper sonata form movement. It was therefore very nice to hear Bychkov’s measured, unsensational way with the very opening where others push too hard and the music ends up sounding strained and thin. As an excellent opera conductor, Bychkov knows how to pace drama and he is no hurry to wow us too soon. The positively radiant playing of the strings in the second subject is another way that he seeks to balance the more theatrical moments of the score. The more the lyrical Wunderhorn elements are allowed to sing the more the big bangs and crashes register. Likewise, his handling of the all important Mahlerian rhetoric is done with the kind of natural rubato then only comes from experience. There is no exaggerated pushing and pulling around here for the sake of a cheap effect. The very ending of this opening movement is splendidly creepy precisely because Bychkov doesn’t overplay his hand and focuses on atmosphere instead. I do hope he gets around to recording Des Knaben Wunderhorn  at some point.

Whilst talking about songs, an enthusiastic word of appreciation for the delectable singing of Elisabeth Kulman in Urlicht. It is bright as a button without a hint of the matronly. There is a highly appropriate openness and freshness to the way she sings. I hope she will feature when this cycle reaches the third symphony.

Which leaves the big question of how does Bychkov get on with the big dramatic moments? I’ll let the mighty crash followed by a CinemaScope landscape that opens the finale speak for itself. That Pentatone’s warm, rich recording copes with it with ease tells you all you need to know about the engineering. This a Resurrection out of the Flemish Masters and decked out in glowing colours rather than a rollercoaster and, for me, all the better for it. It is true that in the main allegro section of this long finale, a little bit more of a white knuckle ride might have been welcome but it is consistent with the rest of Bychkov and nothing about it is routine in any way. The biggest wallops wallop satisfyingly.

To put this account into some kind of context, it ultimately lacks the stoic nobility of Klemperer or the spiritual rewards of Bruno Walter, let alone the electricity of Tennstedt in his live LPO version, to name but a few of my own personal favourites, but in its warmth and in its brightly coloured vision it offers other rewards. Everybody sings their hearts out and the end is approximately spectacular with the organ majestically caught by the engineers.

Incidentally, the recording of this performance has provoked considerable debate. My MWI colleague, David Phipps, in his review felt that the sound was seriously deficient in the bass register. In considering this matter, I must confess that I wrote most of this review before I was aware of this controversy and saw nothing worth remarking upon about the sound other than its excellence. The following observations on the sound quality derive from listening undertaken after this issue was drawn to my attention.

It seems to me, there are five possible reasons that might explain the issue with the sound on this album (assuming of course that there is an issue): the production; the repertoire; the conductor; the orchestra; and the recording venue. The venue can be excluded right away since it has been used countless times in the past – though, interestingly, not often in Mahler. Likewise, repertoire can be removed from the list immediately since, as David Phipps points out, other performances don’t feel light in the bass.

In the absence of many modern Mahler recordings from the Czech Philharmonic, it is hard to resolve the issue definitively in terms of this being what they sound like when they play this music. As a result, it is difficult to say how much is Bychkov and how much is the Czech orchestra. Considering both together, I decided to listen again, with this bass issue in mind, to their recording of Mahler 5, a piece notorious for the heaviness of its scoring. This is where things get really interesting. There is plenty of resonant bass to the opening funeral march but overall both orchestra and conductor seem determined to keep things as light as possible.

Listening to this recording of Mahler 2 from the point of view of production, I came to the same conclusion. Listen to the opening bars. There is plenty of bass resonance but Bychkov holds his lower strings in check in order to let the bassoon sound clearly – it is a wonderful effect. A few short bars later the timpani thunder with all the amplitude I could desire. Another moment to sample which I mentioned earlier is the explosive opening of the finale. Comparison to a random selection of alternative versions – Rattle in Berlin, Klemperer with the Philharmonia, Bernstein’s DG version with the NYPO – sounded, to my ears at least, like the issue was one of interpretation and not engineering. All of those alternatives attack these opening bars of the finale with considerably greater ferocity than Bychkov. But listen to the way the percussion, in particular the tam tam, is caught by the engineers and there really isn’t much difference.

Overall, I suspect this is a matter of one man’s meat. The balance of orchestral sound on all three recordings in Bynchov’s emerging cycle – and I have been lucky to review all three – favours the middle which gives both a lightness and a richness to the sound. A lot of Mahler performances favour top and bottom, largely ignoring the middle. By which I mean that my conclusion, and it is only my highly subjective conclusion, is that the issue here is that its cause lies with orchestra and conductor. Having listened to this aspect with particular care, I return to my original innocent position of not seeing this as a problem at all and a deliberate interpretive choice.

This is not the darkest or the most nakedly thrilling account of this symphony ever committed to disc – its vision of the apocalypse is essentially benign – but it brings a freshness and wonder that certainly sated my palette jaded after too many grandstanding accounts. If you enjoyed Bychkov’s version of No.4 then this will need little recommendation. It furthermore opens the door excitingly to the rest of the Wunderhorn symphonies. Bychkov, in his unassuming, musical way, is quietly assembling one of the most satisfying Mahler symphony cycles in recent years.

David McDade

Previous reviews: David Phipps (April 2023) ~ John Quinn (May 2023)

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