Mahler: Symphony No 6 in A minor

Reviewed on Thu 13 Dec, 2018

Currentzis, placing the Scherzo second (Mahler’s original order), doesn’t restrain its near-satanic throwback to the first movement or the abrupt change to the first Trio marked ‘Grazioso’, where phrases hover across shifting time signatures.

Mahler hurts. And he hurts a lot in this symphony, especially when the fires inside are stoked. Klaus Tennstedt did just that in 1983, burnt concealed wrappings and sent many away in a daze after his performance at the Royal Festival Hall, London. Now comes Teodor Currentzis who – using instruments from the period, violins antiphonally separated – turns the fires into a conflagration. Extracts more. Hurts even more. And this from Mahler’s only “classical” symphony, in four movements, three of which are in A minor, with even an exposition repeat in the first that is observed. Strangely there are two tempo markings for this movement, one in Italian ‘Allegro energico, ma non troppo’ the other in German ‘Heftig aber markig’ (fierce but concentrated). Currentzis opts for the second; and emphatic attack by cellos and basses on the opening quavers heralds uninhibited ferocity until the sudden calm of the Chorale followed by the second subject in F major, a portrait of the composer’s wife Alma, played with supple flexibility. Reach the third part of the development for another example of Currentzis’s response to extremes when, after a triple forte, the music drops to triple piano; and from 12.32 to 16.18 a section of spectral allure – with cowbells “the last terrestrial sounds penetrating into the remote solitude of mountain peaks” (Mahler) and celesta added to an orchestra, here fastidiously balanced from top to bottom – offers a break from utter turmoil. And Currentzis, placing the Scherzo second (Mahler’s original order), doesn’t restrain its near-satanic throwback to the first movement or the abrupt change to the first Trio marked ‘Grazioso’, where phrases hover across shifting time signatures. Continue into a slow movement most sensitively conducted to reveal remoteness, interjected passion and a searing C sharp minor episode before being thrown into the volcanic violence of the finale, where a coda gives the impression of winding down, until three bars before the end there is a fortissimo eruption, timpani crash in with the motto rhythm; and sounds fade into silence. Did Currentzis sense confused internalised emotions? And feel the work as an exposé of rage culminating in despair? Whatever, raw nerve ends scream in pain.
–Nalen Anthoni