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 Recording of the Week  Simon Rattle's new Mahler 2

The symphonies of Gustav Mahler have been a central theme in Simon Rattle’s career, and the Second Symphony (the Resurrection) has been particularly important. He says it was this piece, when aged 12, which made him take up conducting in the first place. He opened and closed his tenure at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with it and during his time there made a critically acclaimed recording with Arleen Augér & Janet Baker the two soloists. That recording became the Gramophone Record of the Year, the Building a Library First Choice, and a Penguin Guide Rosette winner. But it was 24 years ago now and while the quality of that first recording remains, a new recording with the Berlin Philharmonic (the orchestra which premiered the work back in 1895 under the baton of the composer) is a very welcome new release this week.

Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle

The Symphony, scored for large orchestra, soloists and chorus, tackles the great mysteries of life and death and was one of the most successful and popular of Mahler’s symphonies during his lifetime. Rattle explained:

Mahler aimed to put the entire world into a symphony and this world goes from the death rights of some unnamed hero through a memory of what life was in both its beauty and its horror and final resurrection and redemption. It’s on a vast canvas with many, many performers and, for me, it is one of the most moving of all orchestral works.

The new recording comes from live performances in Berlin’s Philharmonie in late October last year with soloists Kate Royal and Magdalena Kožená. I’ve listened to it about a dozen times now and it is fabulous. I grew up with the earlier CBSO recording so couldn’t really stop myself to some degree comparing them. The first thing to say is that, despite the twenty-four year gap, Rattle’s interpretation hasn’t actually changed much, and that is a good thing as there were so many wonderful things about that earlier recording like drama and playfulness which are still ever-present here.

Rattle’s tempos have broadened slightly, but crucially they never feel self-indulgent, and indeed these broad tempos add to the majesty and grandeur of the performance, which was perhaps the only thing that I found slightly lacking in the earlier CBSO recording. And while there is still the incredible attention to detail which Rattle’s Mahler is renowned for – with intricate balance, careful phrasing and stunning dynamic contrasts (ranging from the quietest pianissimos to almost deafening climaxes) – I think Rattle lets his Berlin players ‘play’ a little more than he did the CBSO, where occasionally things sounded slightly too micro-managed.

Magdalena Kožená's ‘Urlicht’ is rich and beautiful but while I’ve written enthusiastically about her in these newsletters in the past I have to admit I did find myself yearning for Janet Baker a bit. It may just be me though as I love the Janet Baker reading of this movement (as I do her Mahler recordings generally) and when you have such an affinity with one performer I do find it hard not to compare all others unfavourably! Kate Royal sings beautifully, as do the impeccable Rundfunkchor Berlin, and the orchestra are lyrical, poetic and dramatic – exactly as required.

A splendid start to this second successive year of Mahler celebrations and a recording which I’m sure you’ll enjoy and cherish for years to come.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor 'Resurrection'

Kate Royal (soprano), Magdalena Kožená (mezzo), Berliner Philharmoniker & Rundfunkchor Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC