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Double Double.

In this installment, Tom Lyle and I are back to our usual shtick, comparing two versions of recordings of music by good old Gustav Mahler. Face it, when it comes to the music of Mahler, Tom and I are just TWO WILD AND CRAAAZZZYYY GUYS!! Mozart fans will just have to look elsewhere, I'm afraid.

So here we go, comparing two recordings of Mahler's Symphony No. 6, both of them on the same label, Deutsche Grammophon. Back in the 1980s, noted Mahler champion Leonard Bernstein led the Vienna Philharmonic in a noted recording (D 215076). Tom and I thought it would be worthwhile to compare that venerable DG recording with a recent DG release that features another noted Mahler conductor, Claudio Abbado, with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 00289 477 5684).

Ever faithful to our principles, Tom and I have refrained from discussing these two recordings with each other and have done our listening and writing completely independently. Because this is an even-numbered issue, Tom will lead off with his findings and then I will close with my take on these two recordings.

TL: I forgot how powerful a version the Leonard Bernstein Mahler Sixth with the Vienna was. I hadn't heard it in a while; instead I listened to the Boulez/Vienna ever since it was released in the mid 1990s. I preferred it because I thought its recording quality was so much better, but now that I've had the chance to revisit the Bernstein I don't know what I was thinking. I guess my priorities were all mixed up back then.

The Vienna Philharmonic under Bernstein comes out like gangbusters right from the start. Wow. And they keep on going. It seems like their taking the tempo at a breakneck pace, but looking at the timings of the movements they seem pretty much the same as the Abbado/Berlin. It's just that Bernstein seems to slow down the slow parts much more, and speed up the fast parts much more, and it more or less balances out. I guess. The slow parts slow things down quite a bit and that's where his timings come out longer. But he makes every note count, and whether or not one feels that he is wearing his heart on his sleeve, so to speak, I've never heard a more involving version of this symphony.

The sound quality is not as bad as I remember it for some reason. It is very up-front, a tad harsh sounding, and there is no soundstage depth to speak of, but it matches the interpretation perfectly--front-row-center and in-your-face. And the bass is excellent.

The Abbado is the opposite. Where the Bernstein is detailed and up close in both the reading and recording, the Abbado is rounded off and distant sounding in both the reading and recording. Judged on its own it is a fine rendition of the symphony, and I don't mean to imply that it is not by saying it is not as hard-hitting as the Bernstein. I even pulled out the Boulez/Vienna to compare it to the Abbado to be sure I wasn't being too harsh--and I was. They both sound very similar, except the Boulez sounds a bit less indistinct than the Abbado. But the interpretations sound very similar, and that's a good thing since I hold the Boulez in such high regard. And so I hold the Abbado version in high regard, too.

The Sixth isn't my favorite Mahler symphony--I tend to get lost in some parts, especially the slower third movement (or second movement, depending on which version you're listening to), and the finale seems a bit out of place. But in Bernstein's hands it all seems to fall together. He makes it all make so much more sense to me. If DG ever gets around to remastering this thing, I'll be the first in line to buy a copy.

KWN: This is the most one-sided comparison that we have done for quite a while, but the news is both good and bad. The goods news is that the winning recording was easy to pick, but the bad news is that the winning recording has a tragic flaw that makes it hard to recommend without reservation.

In all honesty, it only took about two minutes of listening (trust me, though, I did much more than that) to pick the Bernstein performance over the Abbado. The former is bold and dynamic; the latter is smooth and restrained. In this music, bold is beautiful.

Moreover, Bernstein chooses to place the Scherzo second, followed by the Andante (Mahler's original order), while Abbado follows Mahler's revised order, placing the Scherzo after the Andante. To my way of thinking, Mahler was correct the first time around: the sense of peace found in the Andante gives more relief when it comes after the madness of the Scherzo.

Overall, I just found that I greatly preferred the Bernstein performance to the Abbado. Sadly, though, I find it hard to recommend the Bernstein with full enthusiasm because the recorded sound is not really up to audiophile standards, being prone to hardness in the upper registers. It is not unlistenably bad, but it is enough to make me think twice about truly recommending this recording. The Abbado has a softer, more distant sound, more natural, but the performance is just OK, and just OK is not good enough. If nothing else, doing this comparison has reminded me that I might want to look for another Mahler 6th for my collection (the other one I have on hand right now is the Boulez, which is pretty good overall, but not as good as the Bernstein in terms of performance).

Could there be another challenger to Bernstein coming in a future installment of Double Double? I'm sure you are all breathless with anticipation ...
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Title Annotation:comparative analysis of sound recordings
Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:4EUAU
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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