It took me a while to develop an understanding of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony number 6. A few years ago, however, I spent some time in Aspen Colorado, and I had the opportunity to attend a conducting student seminar given by James Conlon, who was just rehearsing this masterpiece with the Aspen Symphony Orchestra.
It was that experience that finally achieved a breakthrough for me, and now this is one of the symphonies that I like very much to hear. (One of these days, I hope to achieve a similar breakthrough with the 7th!!) Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic perform the Symphony #6 beautifully on this CD.
Apart from the first and fourth, the sixth probably stands out as Mahler’s most accessible symphony for newcomers to his music. Not that the Mahler 6th doesn’t have complexities, but it sticks closer to the classical form, where the traditional four movements are used. Its themes and recapitulations are really apparent, and it has a sudden and surprising ending.
The Symphony #6 contains some of Mahler’s best music: The typical Mahler marches at the beginning of the Allegro and the Scherzo; The Allegro’s justly famous theme inspired by Mahler’s wife; “The Alma Theme”; the fiery ending complete with giant hammer blows; the amazingly beautiful Andante respite.
In many ways, this symphony “makes sense” even to a new listener, like me. In this recording, Mr. Abbado places the slow Andante before the Scherzo and removes the third and final hammer blow from the Finale.
Gustav Mahler apparently had trouble making up his mind on the order of the movements, but the original publication put the Scherzo second and included all three hammer blows. The “correct” version remains controversial, since Mahler continued to adjust the symphony throughout his lifetime.
Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic provide an outstanding performance. I actually also own a performance by Pierre Boulez, and I’ll need to decide someday which one I like better; this may actually be another tough challenge to overcome…
Here’s a video with Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in the first movement of Mahler’s 6th symphony: