CDs / DVDs, 01. Dezember 2011
ICA Classics has quickly established itself as a leading independent label, with an impressive stream of concert recordings having appeared on CD and DVD. The quality and quantity of the releases should not be at all surprising, since the forces behind this label and the artists’ agency that houses it are formerly of IMG where they mined the archives for projects such as the BBC Legends label and EMI’s Classic Archive DVD series.

The new label has two strings to its bow. First there are recordings drawn from the archives, including the Charles Munch Beethoven DVD I reviewed earlier this year. Secondly, there are relatively recent recordings made by ICA artists, such as the Antoni Wit Szymanowski DVD also favourably reviewed on this site. This DVD performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony by the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra under Hartmut Haenchen comes within the latter category.

Haenchen supplies his own booklet for this release, consisting in the main of a fictitious letter written by Gustav Mahler to an unnamed friend, explaining the symphony movement by movement. Whether or not this conceit appeals to you, the information Haenchen conveys in this letter and the footnotes to it, pointing up references to Schumann and the influence of Richard Strauss, is fascinating. There is also a brief note in which Haenchen justifies his election to play the scherzo second and the andante third, with reference to Mahler’s hand written corrections to the movement timings in the proof of the first edition of the conductor’s score.

Haenchen's approach to the first movement is rhythmically crisp, naturally paced, and flowingly lyrical. This is not a performance that is driven like Solti’s or any of Bernstein’s, nor is there any hint of the horror of a Barbirolli or Chailly trudge. The darkness of the opening motif is frequently scattered. While it this is not a performance to terrify any listener, Haenchen nevertheless delivers an absorbing narrative built around care for sound. The strings are beautifully blended and he allows plenty of space for instrumental solos to bloom. The principal horn and solo violin episode around the 14 minute mark, for example, is beguiling. Haenchen is also meticulous with dynamics, witness for example the way he brings the orchestra’s sound to a whisper as the exposition repeat approaches. There are little faults though. The orchestral build up around the 17 minute mark lacks power, and there is untidiness in the brass and winds thereafter. Around 18 minutes, the fate motif is hard to make out as those instruments that fall to make the minor chord are overwhelmed by their fellows, minimising the dissonance.

I am glad Haenchen plays the scherzo second and the adagio third. Musicologists far more learned than I am have spilled much ink and invective over the correct order of the inner movements of this symphony. For my part, and perhaps because I first heard the symphony in this way, I find that the symphony makes more sense musically and emotionally this way, as the scherzo’s opening seems to me intended to be a grotesque parody of the opening of the first movement and to mock at its optimistic close. Haenchen does not really play it with such irony. He takes Alma Mahler’s words about children’s games at face value, such that the darkness of this movement in this performance is creeping and subtle rather than sarcastic and immediate. While the interpretation is certainly consistent with that of the first movement and Haenchen’s own booklet note, I wanted more bite and nastiness here.

The andante, however, sings. Haenchen and his orchestra deliver a flowing legato performance of this movement, bittersweet in its beauty. Haenchen and co. are, at 15:56, over a minute faster in this movement than the likes of Karajan, Tennstedt and Tilson Thomas, but there is nothing rushed here. The climax finds a batonless Haenchen thoroughly absorbed in the music. The little collegiate smiles he scattered to his players during the opening movements have disappeared. Placed third and played with such sad rapture, the andante truly is the emotional heart of this performance.

Haenchen takes up his baton again for the monstrous finale, where the intensity of the third movement meets the contrast and clarity of the opening movement. The playing of the orchestra is impressive, with the tuba solos suitably menacing, the soaring trumpet lines at once hopeful and melancholic, and the trombones, especially at the very end, haunting. Haenchen builds intensity slowly throughout the 33 minutes of this movement, clearly keen not to peak too early. The end, when it comes, is cathartic rather than devastating and the culmination of a fine performance. It does not displace my favourites on disc (Tennstedt (LPO and EMI Live), Solti, Boulez, Barbirolli, Bernstein (Sony)) but it is well worth hearing, especially if you incline to Abbado’s and Jansons’ views of this symphony.

Haenchen has recorded this symphony before with the Netherlands Philharmonic, a recording which turned up in a Brilliant Box some years ago. Reviewing that performance (which I have not heard) Tony Duggan suggested that Haenchen seemed not to have made up his mind about how this symphony should go, and that he underplayed the darker drama of the score. I think Tony is right in speculating that Haenchen may be “a Wunderhorn man at heart”, but on the evidence of this new DVD performance he is now capable of shaping a dramatic and satisfying performance of this symphony even though he sees lyrical melancholy where others see sheer terror.

The DVD’s sound quality is most impressive, being very detailed and clear, but also warm, the way a concert hall should sound. The visual element adds to the pleasure of this performance. The hall itself is lovely and the camerawork unfussy, offering plenty of opportunities to watch members of the orchestra as well as the conductor, whose clear gesture is a pleasure to watch in itself.
Tim Perry