Let’s have AllMusic’s James Leonard open for us:
Simon Rattle is a mystery. True, Rattle did build the City of Birmingham Orchestra into something more than a fourth-rate provincial orchestra; under his care and guidance it grew into a second-rate provincial orchestra. But is that a reason to record them? True, Rattle is a Mahler conductor of rare vision and unique insights, but his vision is skewed toward the eccentric and his insights are often simply weird and sometimes little more than interpretive twitches and grimaces.
Simon Rattle’s Mahler Sixth is a mystery. Rattle seems to believe that the opening movement’s march should be played slowly and sluggishly, that its textures should be thick and turgid, that its colors should be garish and vulgar, that its orchestral details should be lost, and that its inexorable momentum should stop every now and then to admire the scenery. Rattle seems to believe that the Andante moderato should be played very slowly and inwardly, which is appropriate, but that it should also be played slackly and laxly, which is less inappropriate. Rattle seems to believe that the Scherzo should be heavy, which was Mahler’s intention, and that it should also be blunt and bland, which was probably not Mahler’s intention. Rattle seems to believe that the Finale is a Triumphal March that apparently inexplicably goes wrong in its closing bars, which is just wrong. The worst is that Rattle has reversed the order of the inner movements. The critical edition of 1963 set that mistake to right decades ago: it is Scherzo-Andante and there are good harmonic and structural reasons to follow this order. But Rattle, through idiocy and perversity, does it backwards. This isn’t an interpretation: it’s a willful distortion and disfigurement of the score. This isn’t a mystery; this is murder.
Damn – someone call an ambulance.
But on the one hand, Leonard is correct: Rattle’s interpretation of the first movement is neither Allegro nor energico as marked. It’s something as you’ll notice from the opening bursts; the notes drag their feet halfway between staccato (intended) and legato. Me, I’m most familiar with Rafael Kubelik’s interpretation available on the Mahler symphony box set released in 2000 that I spent almost too much time with during a two-week ordeal that I’ve written about elsewhere. Kubelik’s is almost notoriously fast, but the end result is something better: in addition to simply getting you to the end result faster, it sounds more grandiose (as I think Mahler would’ve liked) and the action sequence is – just that – more ‘actionful’, and we get to see our hero as a fucking hero. Mahler, a young Greek God, you, me, whoever.
On the other hand, Leonard is a bit catty, especially in his last point about Simon Rattle deciding to place the Andante as the second movement and the Scherzo third. The Guardian‘s Tom Service’s excellent write-up about the symphony goes into the history of the confusion of the sequencing (the article also talks about the infamous hammer blows, another contentious issue). I wouldn’t use a conductor choosing one sequence over the other as a point of major criticism (“But whatever the “facts”, these issues won’t go away, since they’re all part of how the piece has been played, interpreted, and heard over the decades – and I’m not going to suggest that any performance of the Sixth that changes Mahler’s order is inherently “wrong”, just that conductors and scholars need to have good reasons for their decisions”). I personally prefer Scherzo as the second movement for two reasons:
i) the Scherzo is in the same key as the Allegro energetic, and starts much in the same way as well. What results is a nightmarish inversion of the first movement, presented immediately after, while it’s still fresh in our minds.
ii) the Andante being placed second-last allows a brief moment of respite (well, ‘brief’ in Mahler language) after the preceding half-hour and the oncoming finale (which is the longest movement). Placing it second does away with such dramatic niceties.
So it’s a flawed performance, but it’s a Mahler symphony all the same, and it’s my favorite Mahler symphony and the one I put on most often. Maybe it’s because the story (or, action, if you’d rather) is both relatable (to a point) and easy to follow in the music without a programme (ie. the short-lived victory (the huge climax of the first movement suggests victory in the long run might be possible) and then everyone dies – Shakespearian Tragedy style. Hence the title. The finale here has one outburst of sound before mournful horns come in during the closing credits as the casket lowers. (And then, you know, a random chord played by everyone at fff – I’ve yet to hear a case where this chord shouldn’t have been cut.) I’ve seen the symphony as a whole described as classical’s darkest and most nihilistic symphonies and I’ve yet to hear anything to disprove those claims. It helps that it’s one of Mahler’s shortest – always a blessing; this one is his first 4-movement symphony since his first that doesn’t feature vocals (as opposed to his 4th).
Anyway, more general details: the non-slow movements are all panic attacks dispersed by the occasional moment of beauty, sometimes tranquil and sometimes anxious, but beauty all the same – like realizing that it might be okay once you get your bearings (and thus, the Andante functions like any of these brief moments, but in long form…maybe too long, especially on Rattle’s, where while the tempo is right, the energy isn’t). A tranquil example: early in the first movement, after the neat descending-into-hell string motif and brief march – our hero looks at what lies ahead. From the clarinets and faraway plucked strings, I personally hear greenlands; the swooning string line at the 2:55 mark signaling the rising sun. An anxious example: early in the Scherzo, there’s a blaring alarm that eventually cools down into slowly evaporating plucked strings – it’s the first moment of calm amidst calamity. And yet, it’s never that easy, and when the lyrical string ‘riff’ comes in, it’s not exactly normal; listen to the near demonic giggle of the strings immediately after. What results from moments like these is something that’s paradoxically lighter and darker at the same time – while these moments help make us aware that it’s not all that bad, once Mahler eventually swipes all of it away, it’s significantly worse.