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Mahler's Sixth Symphony will always be, in more ways than one, his most pessimistic, violent and enigmatic. Dubbed 'Tragic', there was nothing of the sort during its composition. When Mahler started work on this gigantic masterpiece in the summer of 1903, he was basking in his idyllic family life with his wife Alma and daughter Maria Anna, and his health was good, if not perfect. That summer he wrote two movements and the following year the remaining two. This great happiness was complete when Alma gave birth to their second daughter Anna Justina on 15 July 1904. But that same year, Mahler composed his Kindertotenleider to Alma's horror. How could a man celebrate the death of children when he is so full of love for his own? This is precisely the enigma of the Sixth; for when Mahler was engrossed in the work he had a premonition of the tragedies that were round the corner. Indeed, in his own words, the composer emphasized that in this piece he had set his own life to music 'anticipando'.
Listen — Mahler: Allegro energico, ma non troppo (Symphony No 6)
(CD1 track 1, 0:00-1:00) © 2019, 2020 OehmsClassics Musikproduktion GmbH :
Well, with hindsight we now know how prophetic Mahler was. Three years later Maria Anna died, and soon after Mahler was diagnosed with a serious heart ailment. To cap it all, the composer fell out with the Vienna Court Opera after a prolonged crisis period that had to come to a head. These are the famous three hammer blows that one hears at the end of the 4th movement, an end that comes with a resigned 'coda' in a dying away of the music (morendo) to which an abrupt pizzicato puts an apparently succinct end.
Listen — Mahler: Finale (Symphony No 6)
(CD2 track 1, 30:01-30:59) © 2019, 2020 OehmsClassics Musikproduktion GmbH :
Propelled and structured by remorseless march rhythms, the symphony poses a further charade as regards the sequence of the middle movements. Indeed, the discussion as to which sequence the two central movements should be played in has been raging unabated up to this very day. All the available sources prove that between the dress rehearsal and the premiere Mahler changed the original sequence of Scherzo-Andante to Andante-Scherzo and ever since both versions have existed in parallel in different editions of the score.
When Alma Mahler was asked about the sequence in 1919, she wrote: 'First Scherzo, then Andante – Kind regards, Alma.' And as late as in 1957, she insisted, 'The way Mahler did it in Amsterdam is certainly the correct sequence.' However, the composer never conducted the work in Amsterdam, and the Mahler specialist Henry-Louis de la Grange pointed out that Mahler only swapped the movements reluctantly.
Listen — Mahler: Scherzo (Symphony No 6)
(CD1 track 2, 0:00-0:58) © 2019, 2020 OehmsClassics Musikproduktion GmbH :
Listen — Mahler: Andante moderato (Symphony No 6)
(CD1 track 3, 14:53-15:49) © 2019, 2020 OehmsClassics Musikproduktion GmbH :
The premiere on 27 May 1906 went well, despite some boos and whistles, and the symphony has always commanded the praise of both critics and audiences alike, more so since the 1960s when Mahler's work started to receive the attention it deserved. For this vivid performance from Essen, Tomáš Netopil opted for the Scherzo-Andante sequence, something I personally find much in place, as the symphony seems to be split in two equal parts: two fast movements followed by two less agitated but more dramatic ones that dissipate into an abyss of sadness.
Netopil has stiff competition but this meticulously detailed, immaculately paced, vibrantly played version can stand with heads held high among the most recent issues of this work. Cutting edge sonics and informative annotations complete a committed and highly energetic Mahler 6.
Copyright © 13 March 2020
CD INFORMATION - MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO 6 - NETOPIL