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Mahler Enters the Mainstream

May 19, 1991|HERBERT GLASS | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to The Times.

With Mahlermania a thing of the past and some of his once-esoteric and controversial scores seemingly settling into the standard repertory, the composer has become fair game.

That is to say, his music is coming to be treated as casually or sloppily as the most familiar Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. Something quite special in the way of Mahler performance therefore may not be noticed either, given the vast number of available recordings.

These thoughts are inspired by a mixed lot of recent releases, including segments of two ongoing symphony cycles from the same label, Philips, which already has in its catalogue a complete, still competitive Mahler symphony cycle from Bernard Haitink and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.

The surprise in Haitink's new recording of the Sixth Symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic (Philips 426 257, 2 CDs), is that the otherwise increasingly detached conductor has superseded his previous, rather too well-behaved effort with a reading as ferocious and terror-ridden as the music deserves.

The BPO's playing--notably that of the brass in the superhumanly demanding finale--is, if possible, even more intense and virtuosic than that of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the earlier version.

The conductor would be expected to deliver a pointed, unsentimental interpretation of "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," which rounds out this set, and he does. But soloist Jessye Norman's vast, dark soprano and regal manner hardly conjure up visions of Mahler's simple, lovesick wanderer.

Norman's aloofness is, however, an asset in "Kindertotenlieder," where the crushing sadness of the Ruckert texts needs little adornment. The soprano--we should be calling her a mezzo by this time--is always at her best when captured live, as in this 1988 Frankfurt am Main appearance with Seiji Ozawa the attentive, strongly supportive conductor of the Boston Symphony.

Unfortunately, the song cycle serves as makeweight for a drab, not consistently well-executed slog through Mahler's Seventh Symphony by Ozawa and his Bostonians (Philips 426 249, 2 CDs), the fifth installment of their cycle-in-progress.

Ozawa is well attuned to the flickering half-lights of the two "Nachtmusik" movements, but cringes before the furies (and excesses) of the vast corner movements.

By contrast, we're in sympathetic, knowing hands with the recently revived Vanguard label's first CD issues of its superbly recorded late-'60s, early-'70s versions of the First (4003), Second (4004) and Fourth (4007) symphonies. Maurice Abravanel conducts the Utah Symphony in all three with, in the Second, the collaboration of the University of Utah Chorale, a young soprano named Beverly Sills and contralto Florence Kopleff.

Although the Utah strings are at times overwhelmed by the physical demands of the First and Second symphonies, one has to be cheered by their dedication and by the vigor and textural clarification Abravanel brings to the scores.

In the Fourth Symphony, where sensitivity is all, the performers are triumphant. This is playing (and recording) of optimum clarity and a marvelous melodic ebb and flow. The whole is capped, through the medium of the late Netania Davrath's silvery soprano, by as enticing an evocation of the finale's childlike vision of heaven as any within memory.

Beside Abravanel's sensitivity and idiomatic mastery, Neville Marriner's rushed view of the Fourth Symphony, scrappily executed by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony and with Mitsuko Shirai the tremulous soprano soloist, sounds dispiritingly ordinary and superficial (Capriccio 10 359).

One turns with relief to one of the most vital and stunningly executed Mahler recordings in the catalogue: the Fifth Symphony, in the celebrated 1970 Solti-Chicago Symphony edition, reissued at mid-price (London 430 4430).

The first movement is shatteringly intense, the absolutely awful finale (Mahlerian joy at its most unbuttoned and least convincing) an unbeatable example of the Chicagoans' virtuosity, and the ecstatic slow movement the ultimate example of how penetrating and sensitive a conductor Solti can be when he disdains his hectoring interpretive formulas.

A Mahler performance so wrongheaded and botched as that of the Sixth Symphony by the U.S.S.R. State Symphony under Evgeny Svetlanov (MCA 10207, 2 CDs) deserves cult status among devout Mahlerians.

The recording, while reaching deep into the orchestra's bowels (where no listener would want to be), is a marvel of imbalance. The violin playing--savor it to the max in the soupy portamentos of the slow movement--is slovenly; wind solos are frequently (the oboe usually) mistuned; the French-style wobble of the brass, fun at first, outstays its welcome.

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