Jeremy Lee writes
Mehta’s 1975 account of Mahler’s 2nd symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic has been remastered and digitally transferred with “24-bit technology” on Decca Legends since 2000 after it was released as a London Double Decca coupled with Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4. I have no idea how the sonics were like before the remastering but certainly this present mid-price single-CD incarnation has wonderful sound and is extremely well balanced. (Incidentally, the fact that the whole piece is on a single CD makes it one of the longest playing CDs ever made at 81:11.) Although the sound may be a bit artificial to some and slightly claustrophobic, the off-stage effects are captured magnificently and the percussion and organ in the final movement blend into the sound picture amazingly well.
As for the performance—well, it’s fairly accurate to point out the fact that the market for great Mahler 2s isn’t really bare, and as more conventional accounts go—singling out the legendary, not-a-Mahlerian-if-you-haven’t-heard-it Klemperer and Bernstein, of course, and leaving in Levi, Fischer, Bertini, Eschenbach, Ozawa and even Solti—this may well be my favorite recording. Everything is excellent—the playing, the tempi, the moods—all spot on. Take special note of the timpani and tell me where else you have heard such wonderful-sounding timpani: it’s very crisp and clean, percussive and impactful—yet you’d be able to discern every note with absolute certainty. Surely it makes so many of the triplet passages in the brass in the first movement sound so buoyant, and makes an impressive mark at the end of the final descending chromatic scale and the two strokes that herald the third movement. The second movement’s sudden darkening of mood to A flat minor is done so pictorially—the horns!—it’s hard not to imagine dark clouds suddenly rushing across the sky on a green meadow. The scherzo is brilliant: the winds are lusty, the strings’ tones are so variegated, and the trumpet solo in the middle is immensely nostalgic. Riotous cry of despair, too.
Christa Ludwig is the dark-toned mezzo in Urlicht, and Mehta’s slow tempo allows her introspective and touching voice to resonate and reflect. The result is one of the most heartfelt and soothing Urlichts I’ve heard. The finale erupts well, with some really clear playing from the basses, and the oboes in the orchestral recitatives of the “O glaube” theme is magically yearning. In the march of the dead the brass is so ferocious yet full-sounding, and everything moves along impactfully and smartly with a real sense of urgency. The two bass drum whacks that usher in the recapitulation of the cry of despair are masterstrokes (pun intended), and it’s baffling how none of the recordings I’ve ever heard has ever made them sound clear. Furthermore, the Grosse Appell is very well coordinated. The chorus and the way Ileana Cotrubas’ youthful soprano voice emerges from the mass are magical, the duet between the soprano and the mezzo very well paced and flowing, and the work ends with the organ taking a sensational portion of the sound picture (as mentioned previously) and the chorus singing their hearts out as if their lives depended on this particular effort.
What impresses me the most about the whole performance, though, is the intensity and drama of the interpretation and the focus displayed by both the orchestra and Zubin Mehta. In the highly-regarded Levi recording, for example, everything just seems too safe and measured; Mehta’s approach is far more volatile and exciting, and though it may not match Levi in terms of clinical excellence Mehta has the better orchestra and better playing. There are some tiny quibbles—some small flubs, for example, but mainly how Mehta refuses to let in a small pause before ushering in the choir is a matter of debate. Still, as an all-rounder, and for the sheer excitement and excellence of playing it generates, this tops my list of great Mahler 2s. Add the excellent recording with attractive packaging and very enjoyable booklet notes and I can safely say that this deserves nothing less than my highest recommendation. Bravissimo!
- Album name: Mahler: Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”
- Performers: Ileana Cotrubas (soprano); Christa Ludwig (contralto); Zubin Mehta (conductor); Wiener Staatsopernchor (chorus); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
- Label: Decca Legends 466 992-2
- Sonics: Stereo ADD
- Total playing time: 81:11