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Reviews: Mahler: Symphony No. 6 - Eschenbach

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Reviews: 5

Review by fafnir October 18, 2006 (9 of 11 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Who would have thought a few years ago that Mahler's Sixth would be a leading contender on the classical hit parade? My own collection now includes, in addition to Eschenbach, versions by Zander and MTT on SACD as well as RBCD recordings by Solti and Boulez (his best Mahler, by far). IMO this is a very great score and has been one of my favorites for about 45 years, but I doubt that it warrants quite this much attention when so much awaits decent recordings in SACD technology.

So how does Eschenbach stack up against the competition in my collection? Very well indeed! This is the finest performance of the score that I have ever heard. Each movement is beautifully characterized with respect to tempo, phrasing, and detail with no hint of the calculation or fussiness that sometimes mars his performances. It is all fine, but the third movement is simply heart-stoppingly beautiful, and the drama of the final movement is perfectly realized. Orchestral playing is spectacular. This is a great achievement, especially since it emanates from live concerts.

I have reservations concerning the sound of the other Eschenbach/Philly recording that I own - Tchaikovsky's Fifth. The sound here is much improved with respect to clarity and impact - a pleasure to listen to.

Both the MTT and Zander recording are fine efforts, the Zander especially. The Zander is even somewhat better recorded than the Eschenbach and is not far behind in performance. MTT does not quite measure up to the other two in performance or sound, but is nonetheless a worthy effort.

In summary, highly recommended, especially if you have no recording or if the Zander performance is not your cup of tea (or glass of wine).

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Review by seth December 5, 2006 (8 of 9 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
The catalog certainly does not need another Mahler recording. But an orchestra with a recording contract can not allow there to be a Mahler recording gap between it and its peers. The good news is that this is an excellent recording in all aspects, and that the Philadelphia Orchestra does not intend to record a cycle.

A number of recent recordings of the 6th have tried a "light" approach to the music. Eschenbach opts for a heavy forceful sound, yet, the performance is remarkably transparent, if not the most transparent I've heard. Instruments that normally get lost in the big tuttis, like harp, tam-tam and xylophone, come through perfectly. The balance is ideal between sections; you can really hear how strings, woodwinds and brass pile up on top of each other.

The first two movements are well executed with few surprises. Given Eschenbach's tendencies for excruciating slow tempos, I was expecting him to drag out the first movement march as long as possible. Instead he goes for a middle of the road pace, much like Szell. The Scherzo, played second, is done at an identical tempo. As I noted in my review of Mahler: Symphony No. 6 - Fischer, I like this approach because it makes the movement out to be a parody of the first movement. (The liner notes comment that the Andante-Scherzo order is valid, but Eschenbach has simply chosen Scherzo-Andante)

The slow movement is taken quite slowly -- 17.23 minutes compared to the typical 13 to 14. Eschenbach manages to hold things together, producing an exceptionally involving performance of the Andante. I attended two of the concerts that this recording was cured from last year; I had no idea how unusually long the movement went on for. The slow speed allows Eschenbach to clearly shape and articulate each phrase in order to play up the lyric qualities of the music. The clarinet and horn performances are particularly moving.

The pacing in the final movement is so well done and makes so much sense, that I'm surprised more people don't play it like this. The movement starts off at a usual speed, but after each loud outburst that follows the slow interludes, Eschenbach speeds the tempo up from what it was during the last fast section. As a result, the section following the second hammer blow is played at an unusually fast clip, but Eschenbach brings everything to a halt two beats before the atomic bomb blast that comes from the percussion section. It's quite exciting.

***

Despite ongoing controversy over Verizon Hall's acoustics, the recorded sound is excellent. The first two Ondine/Philadelphia recordings were made within a week of each other in May 2005. This new recording comes from November 2005. So Polyhymnia had a lot of time to analyze the first two recordings and rethink their approach. The sound in this recording is closer, with significantly more impact than the first two. Verizon Hall does an excellent job with bass, which has been captured here. Throughout this symphony Mahler produces low frequency rumbles with the bass drum -- like a freight train coming to a stop -- that are hardly audible in many other recordings of the 6th. In this recording you'll hear more of the bass drum than you're used to (but it never sounds gimmicky boomy like a lot of early Telarc recordings). The hammer blows are among the most penetrating I've heard on recording.

Polyhymnia and the Orchestra seem to have decided not to add reverb in post (or at least a lot) so to give the impression that the recording was made in a church, like many commercial recordings. Some listeners will find the sound jarring at first, but you get used to it quickly. I'm glad that they made this choice since it keeps the sound faithful to what audiences heard live in concert. When I attended these performances I was impressed with how clearly the tam-tam came through at 11.25 in the first movement -- I simply had never noticed it there before; other details like this are just as how I remember them. The one thing that the engineers were not able to do was reproduce the cool effect produced by placing the off-stage bells in the reverberation chambers. Oh well.

Like the two previous Ondine/Philadelphia recordings, for best results you'll need to turn the volume up higher than you do for most recordings.

***

The filler is Mahler's rarely played Piano Quartet movement from his teenage years. At most it's a curiosity. Don't expect to hear signs of future greatness like you do with childhood works of Mozart and Mendelssohn. The quartet sounds like an exercise in writing something in a melancholy Brahmsian style. But I suppose no Mahler aficionado would want to be without every piece of music he wrote, and this disc gives them that opportunity. For those who wonder, the Quartet was recorded in front of a live audience after concerts in March 2006. The hall was half filled and a different mic setup installed than the one used to record the full orchestra.

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Review by georgeflanagin March 21, 2007 (12 of 19 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
ADHD summary:

This short review is mostly about the sonics. On the basis of the excellent review by Seth, I bought the SACD on Monday. I have no desire to become the sound curmudgeon and bête noire of SACD.net, but there must be two versions of this disc, and I have the bad one.

The Performance:

I generally like Eschenbach's work, and I have several of his recordings. The best word for this performance is “episodic,” by which I mean that it amounts to hearing a hitherto unknown piece of music called “Great Scenes from Mahler's Sixth Symphony,” all strung together with little bits of uninteresting filler.

That's not to say that the performance is a catastrophe, nor would I apply any other hyperbole, and I most certainly get the idea that the well rehearsed orchestra is giving Eschenbach exactly what he asked for. Mahler's music is about phrasing, power, transformation, and continuity. I just do not hear in this performance much of the flowing lines that make up many other performances.

The Sound:

In other reviews and the discussion, the sound has been described with these epithets:

- ... the recorded sound is excellent.
- really clear and almost without any noise from the live recording
- you can hear every instrument, its recorded very transparently.
- The sound is layered with all sorts of great moments where instruments ranging from the trombone to harp and tam-tam poke their head through the texture.

In two channel mode, the version of the SACD that I have is “demonstration quality.” In particular, it is a demonstration of how DSD recordings do not guarantee good results. To be specific:

[1] The recording level is low, for which there is no real purpose nor any excuse. It is simple incompetence.

[2] There is almost no sense of front-to-back space in the recording. Instruments sound louder or softer, but not nearer or more distant. The two channel recording is presented in flat as a board left-right pan, and my SACD has a kind of balcony seat effect that gives me the feeling that I am sitting in the cheap seats.

[3] The edges in the left-right direction have an annoying tendency to 'stick' to the electrostatic panels. I am not sure what causes this, but I have heard it on other recordings. Most of the time, the electrostatic panels disappear, and I can easily forget that they are even associated with the music production. I don't want to listen to the speakers; I want to listen to the music.

[4] I agree with the other reviewers that it is possible to hear every instrument with some clarity. However, I feel that this clarity worsens the feeling of episodes and fragmentation in the performance. I don't want to hear the instruments; I want to hear the music.

[5] The hammer blows ... well ... what can I say? I have been splitting for firewood some 2 foot diameter pieces of knotty hickory that require the use of two or three wedges to get them apart. The Philadelphia Orchestra has the hammer that I need to drive the wedge through the wood! I am not sure that I am man enough to swing it, but I want it nonetheless. Really, I do. It is a HUGE boom. However, booms do not a Mahler Sixth make.

Finally, I timed that there are /at most/ three seconds from the end of the music to the applause. The audience most definitely enjoyed it.

Bottom Line:

This is my sixth sixth, and I rank it sixth in overall enjoyment. 666. You decide.

George Flanagin

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Review by jlaurson October 10, 2007 (2 of 3 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
One of the latest additions of ‘Sixths‘ needs to be mentioned: Christoph Eschenbach, in his third recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra on Ondine, delivers a parting salvo of grand proportions (the recording was released at around the same time he announced to step down as Music Director in Philadelphia after a tenure fraught with unease and disagreements). This was surprising after I thought that the Eschenbach/Philly Concerto for Orchestra was just about the worst interpretations I have ever heard. Tchaikovsky 4th (was it that? Or the 5th?) I skipped, because no matter how fantastic the sound (as assured by an audiophile friend), I was simply not ready to listen to that piece again... and especially not after the Bartok experience with Eschenbach. Then came Mahler... and I HAVE to listen to every Mahler release:


Next to Gielen's and Zander’s, it’s the only modern recording of the Sixth that can be included in the ‘wild’ category. Eschenbach delivers only two Hammerblows but interestingly he takes the Scherzo first. Playing (plenty aggression) and sound on the SACD hybrid are flawless. It is heavy and heavy hitting, sometimes slow to get its own weight moving in the first movement – but rarely ever to its detriment, usually to the benefit of its ransacking, pillaging quality. The dainty, ‘Nutcrackery’ interludes and gentleness in the same movement sound all the more like false calm. Coupling it with the Mahler Piano Quartet (filling out the second disc) was a great idea, too, especially when the playing is as good as here.

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Review by Luukas March 28, 2015 (1 of 2 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony is a challenge to the performers. Its dramatic feeling is hard to reach. But here Christopher Eschenbach and wonderful Philadelphia Orchestra are really successful.
Eschenbach's tempi are peaceful. For example Gergiev's interpretation with London Symphony Orchestra is much quicker:
I. 23'34 (Eschenbach), 21'59 (Gergiev)
II. (Scherzo): 13'11, 12'34
III. (Andante moderato): 17'23, 13'53
IV. 30'48, 28'45
Eschenbach uses also the second revised edition which contains many corrections. For example the third hammer stroke [in the finale] is deleted.
The performance is excellent. Eschenbach finds many new things from the score and the musicians follows his wishes closely. They have a long musical relationship - it started many years earlier. The interpretation will be in my top 5 list.

This disc is recorded by using the old-fashioned audio technology, PCM. It was a disappointment because the surround sound was distant. But there was also many good things: I heard the distant cowbells from my surround speakers and the hammer's strokes were stunning! Mahler wished that the hammer's stroke should be "short, powerful, but dull-sounding stroke of a nonmetallic character". Here it was captured as the composer wished.

Overall results:
- Performance: ****1/2 (Nearly outstanding but there are some better readings - such as Michael Tilson Thomas' performance with San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (Avie))
- Recording: ****
- Packaging: ***** (There is a separate booklet. The jewel case is covered by a silver plastic slipcase)

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