Kondrashin’s Mahler Sixth Released on CD

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 6, “Tragic” / SWR Orchestra Baden-Baden; Kiril Kondrashin, cond / SWR Classic 19416CD

This January 1981 recording of the Mahler Sixth was one of Kiril Kondrashin’s last. Known for most of his conducting career as an accompanist in concerto performances (despite his introducing and recording Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony), he finally got more of an opportunity to play symphonic works once he emigrated to Holland in the late 1970s, where he made a huge impression as a guest conductor, particularly with West German radio orchestras such as this one. He was chosen to replace Rafael Kubelik as chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1982, but suddenly died in March 1981 before he could take up that post.

The opening of the first movement of this Mahler Sixth does not bode well. Kondrashin not only takes a fast tempo, which is not altogether bad in itself, but he conducts it so glibly that it sounds less like the tramping of jackboots than it does a bunch of mad shoppers rushing into a store on Black Friday to begin their holiday spending. He does, however, redeem himself with some ritards that add to the interest, but every time the music becomes more dramatic Kondrashin again rushes things and loses the feel of the music. I’ve heard several Mahler Sixths taken at a rather brisk pace, but none that sound as this glib in these specific passages, and the quirkiness of his rush-slow down-rush pace reminds me too much of Giuseppe Sinopoli, certainly one of the worst famous conductors of our time.

Kondrashin also takes a similarly hectic view of the second movement. I presume that there were, and are, listeners who respond to this sort of thing with enthusiasm, but I am only giving you my own impression. And again, when he relaxes the tempo and chooses to let the music breathe, he really does do some fine interpreting. It’s just a little too much of a push-pull experience for me.

Predictably, Kondrashin does an excellent job with the slow movement, surely one of Mahler’s most moving and beautiful creations. Kondrashin is especially effective here in the movement’s loud outburst at the 10:25 mark, but even elsewhere he shapes the music effectively and dramatically.

In the long and sometimes tortuous final movement, which runs nearly a half-hour, Kondrashin again resorts to speediness in certain moments, although here they seem to work to the music’s advantage, tightening the overall structure and not allowing the music to drag, as it often does in performance. He also relaxes the tempo enough to give the third-movement allusions their proper effect. And to his credit, he makes much more of the three hammer blows than do most conductors, even Leonard Bernstein in his excellent Vienna Philharmonic recording of this symphony. For once, then, his sometimes-hectic pace has a beneficial effect.

You may or may not like this recording better than I did. It certainly has energy, though occasionally misguided in my view. It’s certainly an idiosyncratic performance to say the least!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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