Albert Camus once wrote ‘when I describe what the catastrophe of modern man looks like, music comes into my mind –the music of Gustav Mahler’. If asked to specify a particular work, it is quite possible that Camus would have proposed Symphony No. 6 in A minor–the symphony that Bruno Walter claimed portrayed ‘a terrifying, hopeless darkness, without a human sound’. Nevertheless, the period during which Mahler wrote his Sixth was one of the most successful and happiest of his life –prior to any marital difficulties, at the time of the birth of his second daughter Anna, his professional reputation growing.
Alma Mahler, in her memoirs, suggested that the symphony was in fact predicting instances of future distress in the composer’s own life, and she and various commentators have proposed various interpretations of different elements. Most famous of these are possibly the hammer strokes in the Finale, falling, according to Alma, like ‘blows of fate’ on the ‘hero’ of the symphony.
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Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor 1. I. Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig 2. II. Andante moderato 3. III. Scherzo.Wuchtig 4. IV. Finale. Allegro moderato – Allegro energico
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The long view sets Vänksä apart in Mahler.
I was impressed with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra's recent recording of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. I thought his view of that (literally) central work recalled the earlier symphonies - strong in the pastoral and lyrical sections, and innocent overall - rather than pointing towards to the angst of the later works. This recording of No. 6 has the same attributes: highly concentrated orchestral playing and tonal balance, very clean textures, and a fine ear for detail.
The Sixth is not the Fifth. It is subtitled the "Tragic" Symphony for a reason. Any innocence (except in the 'Andante' movement, and maybe even there) is emotionally loaded. The first movement, a march that in the hands of Leonard Bernstein or Klaus Tennstedt is full of portent, comes across as brisk and jaunty under Vänskä. It suggests he may not be in tune with this searing work, but in my view he is leaving himself somewhere to go, because by the time of the final movement the dramatic tension has reached full force. The famous drum thwacks, representing the "hammer of fate" according to the composer, arrive with great force - not least the shattering final chord.
In this symphony, the order in which the two central movements should be played is not cut and dried. Mahler tried it both ways. Vänskä places the gentle, melodious 'Andante moderato' second, and the tougher 'Scherzo' third. The effect of this is to create a straightforward structural path towards that tragic ending.
The interesting comparison to make is with the DG recording under Pierre Boulez, who was always characterised as an analytical and detached conductor. Unexpectedly, the tragic aspect is there in his performance from the first bar, with plenty of heart in the 'Andante'. That is because Boulez conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, whose violins can't fail to play expressively. (Boulez reverses the order of the central movements.) While Vänskä's long-view vision certainly pays off, other performances are more moving from moment to moment. BIS's sound is as clear and realistic as ever.