Mahler: Symphony No. 1; Adagio from Symphony No. 10

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: DG Westminster
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Adagio from Symphony No. 10
PERFORMER: RPO, Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Hermann Scherchen
CATALOGUE NO: 471 246-2 ADD mono Reissue (1954, 1952)
Spellbinding as sound, frequently leaden in their sense of movement, Sinopoli’s Mahler interpretations will continue to furnish evidence of this music’s extreme possibilities long after the conductor’s death. In bringing them together for the first time under one roof, however, DG is bound to raise comparisons with two of its other champions – Kubelík, whose no-nonsense illumination is about as far from Sinopoli as it’s possible to go, and Bernstein’s cycle, where instinctive genius and the inner life of the phrasing carry off the kind of licence which frequently falls flat on its face here.

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Slow movements are always too slow: why should the Sixth’s Andante become an Adagio six minutes longer than the average, even when the quiet beauty of the Philharmonia’s first horn and strings make the best possible case for it? Sinopoli also furnishes the classic case of the conductor who reads Mahler’s every injunction not to hurry as ‘slow down and stop’, and conversely ‘nicht schleppen’ (‘don’t drag’) always seems to mean ‘put on a sprint’. Yet when sheer revelation of competing musical lines goes hand in glove with an obligatory naturalness, as in the Fourth Symphony, the results can amaze. Sinopoli’s vocal soloists are first class, the big theatrical coups of the Second and Eighth symphonies have maximum impact and the sound quality throughout, if not as brightly lit as the sometimes more primitive engineering for Kubelík, reflects a preference for weighty, resonant timbres.

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Curiously, the two other interpreters here begin by paralleling Sinopoli’s indulgences. Scherchen’s mono First from 1955, generally well-balanced and accompanied by this great early Mahlerian’s celebrated revelation of the Tenth’s Adagio, starts like Sinopoli by keeping its hero on ice for three-quarters of the opening movement. Once freed, though, he flies like an arrow, and the finale’s struggles have a focused energy beyond Sinopoli’s field of vision. Gielen in the Sixth, Andante apart, pulls out extra stops and wrenches the tempi – especially those of the heady ‘Alma’ theme in the first movement – beyond the call of expressive duty. The orchestra tries its best, but without the armoury of the Philharmonia brass, buckles under the compulsory weightiness. The intriguing companion-piece excursions forwards and backwards in the Viennese tradition aren’t enough to propel this honourable set into the front league.