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Benjamin Zander - Philharmonia Orchestra - Mahler: Symphony No. 2 - MusicWeb International


21 December 2013
MusicWeb International
Jon Quinn

Benjamin Zander has made several Mahler recordings in the past, most of them released on the Telarc label, I think. These have included the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth symphonies, mainly with the Philharmonia. For some reason his performances have never come my way so I was intrigued by the opportunity to hear him in a new reading of the Second Symphony. This is his first recording for Linn who are renowned for their sonics. The combination of Linn engineering and Mahler's vast symphonic fresco was an enticing one.

The start is auspicious: a chilly, urgent violin tremolando and seismic shudderings from cellos and basses; is this a harbinger of things to come? Well, yes, it is. Zander's way with the big first movement is impressive. His conducting demonstrates grip and he and the orchestra invest the music with genuine tension. He slows, naturally, for the nostalgic episode (from 5:36) which is taken expansively and which exhibits some lovely wind and string playing. However, in the extensive martial stretches there's the necessary weight, fire and drama in the performance, the rhythms strongly articulated...The ominous build-up to the end (from 19:19) is well controlled and strong on atmosphere. In the concluding bars Zander is not one of those conductors who play the plunging downward figure slowly; instead there's a rapid descent into the abyss, which is how I like to hear it.

The core tempo for the 'Andante' is quite fleet...In these opening pages Zander draws some deliciously delicate string playing from the Philharmonia...his reading of this movement offers a refreshing interlude after the drama of the first movement.

It may seem to be an odd thing to say when appraising a performance of this symphony but in some ways I found the account of the Scherzo the most impressive of all. Zander and his players bring out Mahler's sardonic humour - sample the tangy woodwind accents around 1:05, which I've never heard delivered quite like this. They also clarify Mahler's polyphonic writing expertly - as do the engineers. The playing is pithy and a wealth of detail emerges, though not in an unnatural fashion. I can't recall hearing this musical canvas laid out so clearly before. It's a fantastic, keenly observed performance of the movement which made me listen as though with fresh ears.

Sarah Connolly is eloquent and rich of tone in ‘Urlicht', the first part of which Zander takes very expansively. Soloist and conductor collaborate in a very expressive reading of this movement. Then the apocalypse is unleashed. In this vast finale the superb playing of the Philharmonia and the marvellous engineering pay real dividends. For example, the distant horn calls (1:54) are really distant - throughout this movement the spatial effects are magnificently handled. I think Zander's way with the finale may be controversial in some quarters. At 38:57 it's the longest traversal I can recall hearing - most versions in my collection clock in at between 34 and 35 minutes. It's true that Zander's tempi can be expansive - he takes over 16 minutes for the choral part of the movement - yet even when he's drawing out the pace I find that the drama, thrust and concentration are maintained. The two huge crescendo drum rolls (10:57) are thrilling and thereafter the incident-packed music fairly seethes right up to the groβe Appell (19:57). The Appell itself is brought off superbly - here, as elsewhere, Zander is masterly in his judgement of dramatic pauses. Once again the spatial effects are thrilling in this section and the Philharmonia's flautist is on top form.

The choir's first hushed entry (22:31) is wonderfully atmospheric, proving that soft dynamics can be as thrilling as the loudest fortissimo. Miah Persson's first phrases rise beautifully from the choral textures...Both of the soloists are excellent in this last section of the finale, as is the choir. The ending is superbly sonorous and completely affirming.

As I listened to this remarkable recording I reflected that the intense focus on Mahler's music in 2010 and 2011 perhaps made us somewhat blasé about his music. I lost count of the number of times I heard this symphony, both on disc and live, during those two years. It's a notable achievement that Benjamin Zander obliges the listener - well, this listener, anyway - to hear the music afresh...what is beyond dispute is that this performance is the product of very careful consideration of and deep thought about the music...this is an exciting but far from routine performance of the ‘Resurrection' Symphony.

I believe that several of Zander's earlier Mahler releases included in the package a CD containing a talk by him about the symphony in question. For this latest release the feature, which runs for 106 minutes, has been made available as a free download obtainable from the Linn website here.

As I've indicated, the recorded sound is absolutely superb, making a great impact yet also bringing out also countless little subtleties in Mahler's scoring. The playing and singing are of an equally high order so everyone has collaborated to realise Zander's vision of this stirring symphony. This compelling performance is my first encounter with Benjamin Zander in Mahler but I hope it won't be the last. More please.
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