Benjamin Zander - Philharmonia Orchestra - Mahler: Symphony No. 2 - Gramophone

Benjamin Zander's continuing exploration of Mahler's symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra for Telarc was highly regarded on two fronts: first, for his practically slavish devotion to the scores, and second, for his verbal commentaries, included on a bonus CD in the package. But since 2009, when the Cleveland-based label announced that they would stop producing their own recordings, Zander's Mahler cycle went silent, apparently in a search for a label with comparable devotion to audio quality.

With the Glasgow-based Linn Records, the project is back in business, even if the continuity is less than seamless. Zander's fidelity to Mahler's markings remains remarkable. So too does he handle timbral contrasts supremely well, particularly in balancing vocal soloists Miah Persson and Sarah Connolly within the overall texture. But no one would confuse the sound quality here with Telarc's earlier releases.

Where Telarc's goal was evidently to create a pure, immediate sound, this Mahler Second takes an acoustical step backwards into the hall. Compared with Zander's earlier recording of, say, Mahler's First (4/06) - recorded, as with this outing, at the Watford Colosseum - Telarc's close-mic transparency is replaced with a setting that carries the original resonance of the hall like so much extra baggage. The opening cello lines lack rhythmic bite; elsewhere brass players strain to be heard at all.

Whether the difference was due to a variance of preferences between the labels or to differences between the emotional character and musical requirements in the two works themselves, it remains rather hard to hear these two recordings sequentially as part of the same cycle. On the other hand, the move to Linn has no way hindered Zander's verbal discourse - and in fact has arguable opened new possibilities. By altering the format from a bonus CD to a free download on the Linn website, Zander is no longer constrained by length. In fact, his talk, running at more than 100 minutes, is longer than the symphony itself.

Gramophone
05 March 2014