Recordings: Philadelphia, Verizon Hall, November 2005 (Symphony No. 6), March 2006 (Piano Quartet)
Recording has long been recognized as part of the lifeblood of symphony orchestras; in terms of publicity, satisfying the needs of patrons, and spreading the gospel about orchestras of high caliber, nothing beats a good recording. When the bottom fell out at BMG Classics in 1999, the illustrious Philadelphia Orchestra found itself without a recording contract for the first time since 1917, and surprised everyone in the industry by briefly recording with budget stalwart Naxos before moving onto an arrangement with Finnish label Ondine. This option has worked out well, as Ondine is capable of delivering better sound and more attractive kinds of packaging than the Philadelphia Orchestra could expect even at BMG. This Ondine issue featuring Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia in the SACD format is no exception to either of these attributes.
Eschenbach's only previous Mahler symphony recording is one made of the Symphony No. 1, "Titan," with the Houston Symphony, and his rendering of the Symphony No. 6 in A minor, "Tragic," with the Philadelphia Orchestra, is the first the orchestra has ever made of this work. Overall, this symphony is just a tad longer than the average length of a CD, and while some conductors with speedy tastes for certain movements within are able to deliver performances that fit on a single disc, the established norm is to divide the long Finale: Allegro moderato off to a second disc, and perhaps find some filler. The filler here is an interesting choice, Mahler's early and not frequently recorded Piano Quintet in A minor. Eschenbach is an excellent pianist and is superb in chamber music, and not surprisingly this is a strong performance - perhaps its main competition is a recording led by Ralf Gothoni, also found on Ondine.
Eschenbach uses the lighter, revised version of the Symphony No. 6, but elects to retain Mahler's original movement plan, which places the Scherzo before the Andante moderato movement. This may be in part to showcase the Andante moderato in particular, as Eschenbach takes this movement much slower than most, clocking in at 17 and a half minutes. The remainder reflects average timings; however, the pace of the Scherzo is almost identical to that of Allegro energico, and the two movements are shaped here as though cut of the same cloth. Eschenbach's reading of the Sixth is steady, cool, controlled, and a little conservative - don't expect any of the explosive and tragic histrionics one finds in long-heralded interpretations of the Mahler Sixth by John Barbirolli or Jascha Horenstein. If one does not have a recording of the Sixth already, Ondine's Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 would be an excellent choice, as it very clearly transmits Mahler's score with a minimum of fuss and a certain degree of elegance. Only problem is that it enters into a rather crowded field - not only is there an SFS Media version led by Michael Tilson Thomas that comes highly touted, but there are already a half-dozen SACD versions of the Mahler Sixth available. Nevertheless, some hardcore Mahler fanciers can never own too many versions of the Sixth, and while some of them, with the perversity typical to Mahler nuts, might feel that the symphony is merely serving as filler to this excellent recording of the Piano Quintet, this will still come as good news to Ondine and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
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Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 6
Gustav Mahler composed his Sixth Symphony during the summers of 1903 (first through third movements) and 1904 (Finale) in his composing hut at Maiernigg near Klagenfurt in Carinthia. This symphony, which Mahler himself later called the 'Tragic" (for example, in the program for the performance he conducted in Vienna on January 4, 1907), presented a "riddle" which was soon surrounded by legends. In the autumn of 1904 Mahler wrote to his biographer Richard Specht, "My Sixth will pose riddles which only a generation that has absorbed and digested my first five symphonies may hope to solve." Particularly enigmatic are the bleakness and the devastating hopelessness of the Finale, written at a time when Mahler was at the absolute pinnacle of his life, both professionally and personally Mahler's wife, Alma, obviously found it difficult to tolerate this contradiction and later fabricated several "biographical" interpretations (Jens Malte Fischer) in which she herself (in the second subject of the first movement), their two children (in a passage from the Scherzo), and alleged premonitions of Mahler's own fate, caused by a heart condition (the hammer blows in the Finale), played a part. Mahler prepared the final manuscript of the score during the winter months of the 1904/05 opera season. In the summer of 1905 he concluded a contract with C. F. Kahnt (Leipzig) for the publication of the symphony, after Henri Hinrichsen of C. F. Peters, which had just published his Fifth Symphony, did not agree to Mahler's high financial demands. It was customary at that time to attempt to publish a study score before a premiere so that the critics in particular could form an impression of the new work. Unfortunately this practice led to great problems for Mahlen who began to make revisions during the rehearsals for the premiere. Study and conducting scores of the Sixth (and Richard Specht's thematic analysis) were published before the first performance. Both editions were already superseded on the evening of the world premiere (May 27, 1906, in Essen), however, since Mahler had changed the order of the inner movements and made countless alterations to the orchestration, dynamics, articulation, etc. During the months following the premiere Mahler continued to make revisions. The conducting score, Alexander von Zemlinsky's "excellent" (Mahler) piano reduction for four hands, and Specht's analysis were consequently reprinted, with the order of the movements changed. The score was revised so radically that it must in fact be called a second version. In the course of this revision, the third hammer blow was deleted as well. Originally there had been five blows; at the first performance three were heard. Mahler subsequently reworked the third passage substantially, altered its overall sound characteristics and dynamics, and removed the hammer blow. Hence there are two authentic versions of the Sixth: the initial version published before the premiere with the movement order Allegro - Scherzo -Andante - Finale and three hammer blows (which was never performed by Mahler himself however) and the second version from autumn of the same year, with completely revised orchestration and the order Allegro - Andante - Scherzo -Finale, with two hammer blows. Subsequent statements by Erwin Ratz,the editor of the Critical Edition of the Symphony (1963), that Mahler had withdrawn the change again trace back to misinformation from Alma Mahler, which dates from 1919 at the earliest, i.e., after Mahler's death, and is completely unfounded. Mahler himself did not make a second revision. For this recording, Christoph Eschenbach has chosen the instrumentation of the second version, with the movement order from the first version.
More than Mahler's other works, the Sixth Symphony adheres to the essential formal characteristics of "classical" symphonic form, such as its four-movement structure and the absence of vocal forces. Apart from such external features, however; we are confronted with obvious innovations. The march plays an important role from the very first note. The Scherzo is particularly unusual in this respect, acting as a parodistic paraphrase of the opening, with a shift in perspective, Formally it is not a march, of course, but is closely related thematically. The episode with the cowbells in the first movement is strikingly different Contrary to the view of many contemporary and present-day critics, it is not a musical gag but Mahler's symbolic depiction of extreme detachment from the world, reverie, and closeness to God. The melodic theme of the Andante impressed Schoenberg so much that he analyzed it several times. This movement also has a religious element which ranges from monastic asceticism to supernatural ecstasy. The expansive Finale takes up the characteristic march style again, increasingly transforming it into a funeral march toward the end of the movement. Along with the hammer blows, a stereotypical ostinato percussion rhythm and the shift from a major to a minor chord (the quintessence of the music of Mahler's kindred spirit, Schubert) confirm that the label "Tragic" is justified.
The Piano Quartet movement in A minor is Mahler's only surviving chamber music composition as well as the sole example of his work during his student days prior to the cantata Das klagende Lied (1880). From September 1875 Mahler studied at the Vienna Conservatory ("Conservatory of the Society of Friends of Music of the Austrian Imperial State'1) in the Musikverein building at Karlsplatz Square. The 15-year-old had enrolled for piano as his main subject (with Julius Epstein), harmony (with Robert Fuchs), and composition (with Franz Krenn). Mahler; who had always had to struggle at the gymnasium, was a good student at the conservatory. This is substantiated by several prizes, both as a pianist and in composition. His works from this period, which are documented by records such as programs and awards presented, have all been lost, with the single exception of the piano quartet movement. It was composed either in 1876 (the date on the manuscript) or during the summer holidays of 1877 (letter to his piano professor Julius Epstein, with the prominent notation "ungemein rubato" which appears verbatim in the autograph score). The manuscript was mysteriously preserved in Alma Mahler's possession. A pencil sketch of the opening of a movement of a work (6/8 time, G minor) for the same instrumentation that is found upside down on the cover (completed by Alfred Schnittke, among others) is definitely not part of this work and is thus not included.
The movement follows "textbook" sonata form. The exposition of the two themes (principal and subsidiary themes, from which a closing group is also derived) is to be repeated. The principal theme is elaborated in the development, the recapitulation proceeds similar to the exposition, and before the brief coda a cadenza by the violin marks a clear caesura. Despite the anticipated affinity with influences such as Brahms, unmistakable characteristics of Mahler's personal style are unquestionably apparent It is particularly "the ability to conceive a movement as a whole" (Adorno) which substantially contributes to the unifying power of the principal motif, a - f- e (tonic - sixth - fifth), which is heard at the very beginning in the bass of the piano, runs through the entire work and concludes it in the last three chords.
-Reinhold Kubik (Editor in Chief of the Critical Edition of the Complete. Works of Gustav Mahler, International G M. Society, Vienna) Translation: Phyllis Anderson
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Founded in 1900, The Philadelphia Orchestra has distinguished itself as one of the leading orchestras in the world through a century of acclaimed performances, historic international tours, and best-selling recordings. Six music directors have piloted the Orchestra through its first century, giving the ensemble an unparalleled cohesiveness and unity in artistic leadership. Fritz Scheel and Carl Pohlig served as its first music directors. In 1912 Leopold Stokowski was appointed conductor. Leading a series of major world and U.S. premieres and making widely acclaimed recordings, Stokowski firmly established Philadelphia's prominence in American classical music.
Eugene Ormandy assumed the music directorship in 1936. For the next 44 years, he maintained and expanded upon the Orchestras unique artistry and musical excellence. Under Ormandy, the Orchestra refined its famed "Philadelphia Sound" and traveled widely. Perhaps his most lasting legacy is a Philadelphia discography of nearly 400 recordings.
In 1980 Riccardo Muti took over the Orchestras leadership. He built upon the Orchestra's tradition of versatility by introducing new music from all periods. An advocate of contemporary music, Muti commissioned many new works and appointed the Orchestra's first composer-in-residence.
Wolfgang Sawallisch became music director in 1993. Acclaimed as one of the greatest living exponents of the Germanic musical tradition, Sawallisch has enriched and expanded upon the Orchestra's reputation for excellence in this repertoire, while also promoting new and lesser-known compositions.
This rich tradition is carried on by Christoph Eschenbach, who began his tenure as the Orchestra's seventh music director in September 2003. Highlights of his first seasons include the Orchestra's first-ever multi-year cycle of Mahler's complete symphonies; a four-week festival entitled Late Great Works, featuring late works by Mozart, Strauss, Mahler,Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and Berio, all nine Beethoven symphonies, conducted by Mr. Eschenbach and paired with music of our time, including several world premieres; and tours to Europe and Asia.
The Philadelphia Orchestra performs its home subscription concerts at The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Designed and built especially for the Orchestra, the Kimmel Center provides the Orchestra with a state-of-the-art facility for concerts, recordings, and education activities.
For more information: www.philorch.org