MAHLER: Symphony No. 3, in D minor. SCHUBERT: 5 Excerpts from Rosamunde, D.797, "together with" WEBERN: Sechs Stücke for Orchestra, Op. 6
SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg, Michael Gielen/cond; Cornelia Kallisch (alto), Europa ChorAkademie, and Freiburg Domsingknaben (in Mahler).

Hanssler Classic 93.017 (2 CDs) [DDD] [F]  TT:  63:30 & 72:08

Gielen called his Schubert/Webern zusammen a "montage," and conducted it in October 1980 during the first month of his music directorship at Cincinnati, a six-year tenure through the spring of 1986. At the same time he was general music director of the city of Frankfurt (1977-87), where most likely he first presented this conflation -- idiosyncratic, perhaps, but not damaging to either composer. The Webern Six Pieces have always been a toothache for concertgoers, despite their creation in 1909 for a monster orchestra, which the composer modified in 1929 -- the edition used here. (In 1920 he made a chamber-orchestra version for his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg's, Berlin concerts of new music, but afterwards disavowed it.)

I needed to annotate a similar "montage" in March 2001 for an end-of-April program by the New York Chamber Symphony, guest-conducted by Bernhard Klee. He, however, included only four rather than five cues from Schubert's 10 for Rosamunde, and played Webern's first, second and third pieces without pause (whereas Gielen did the first one alone after Schubert's B-minor Entr'acte, then Webern 2 and 3 after a second Schubert excerpt). Both conductors featured Webern's fourth and longest, a marcia funebre, by itself; then more Schubert before Webern 5 and 6, and finally Schubert's B-flat Entr'acte. The New York performance, however, used Webern's disavowed 1920 version, which had been lost until 1976.

I bought this H”nssler boxed set with a Y2K copyright, to help clear up changes in the 1920 movement-markings from those before and after, and also to nail down exactly which Schubert excerpts Klee was conducting, contra Gielen. The job got finished only after a chain of ulcer-causing problems when Lincoln Center Stagebill summarily changed "templates" in mid-season. Relieved to be done, I filed the set under Mahler and promptly forgot about it. I've had a Gielen Mahler Third with the Berlin Radio Orchestra in 1984 on cassette for 16 years, and besides that, other assignments needed doing under deadline pressure.

Not until yesterday (April 28, 2001) did I remember H”nssler's unheard Mahler, made during a concert at Freiburg in February 1997. At the end of a day-off to shop, I settled down with some vodka in crushed ice to listen. Ninety-three minutes later I had experienced an incarnation without precedent, stretching back to Bernstein's first version with the New York Philharmonic 40 years ago. The opening of No. 3 is my favorite movement in all of Mahler's symphonies, including Das Lied von der Erde and Deryck Cooke's second version of No. 10 (followed by the opening movement of No. 7, the Abschied from Das Lied, and the finale of No. 10). I write this only so you may know where I stand vis-a-vis Mahler, and whether or not you can trust what I say.

Gielen doesn't quite ratchet-up the concluding bars of the first movement as he did in 1984, but this is only a hair short: playing is so full-throated, and the recording so powerful yet amazingly clear, more might have been too much. To make sure memory wasn’t playing tricks I played it again with score to see if Gielen had overlooked anything. Nothing had been, including my first experience of solo oboe glissandi throughout the fourth movement (where a contralto soloist sings Nietzsche's "O Mensch, gib acht!" from Zarathustra). Mahler marked these "hinaufziehen (Wie ein Naturlaut)" - achingly upward (as a natural sound) - and the effect is chilling, as well as an example of the care and thought Gielen lavished. The program note is his, but I recommend you skip it. This man of such feeling (like Mahler a Cancerian) has always traveled with an excess of intellectual baggage - of the German Philosophical kind impenetrable to mere mortals. If I say with some sadness that I don't know what the hell he is talking about, I do know on the other hand what he feels, intuits, and has imparted to a superb radio orchestra, leagues better than the ensemble inherited from Hans Rosbaud, Pierre Boulez, and Ernest Bour before him. The SWR/Baden-Baden u. Freiburg Simphonieorchester is arguably Germany's best broadcast assemblage - or was in 1997.

The fastidiousness and strength of its playing, the depth of its sound whether whispering or roaring, and the excellence of its solo players - these are dedicated to a Mahler homage that leaves one wordless. Gielen has managed to illuminate everything to be seen in the score, at the same time his architecture is structurally as solid as a Roman aqueduct. The terror that underlies the first movement - Mahler's obsessive memories of an Austrian garrison billeted near Iglau where he grew up, and their blaring, menacing military presence -- inhabits the entire work. It is almost painful to experience yet indubitably cathartic, even when side-drum and timpani tattoos intrude in the sweetest pastoral episodes later on. There isn't a tempo throughout that sounds arbitrary, even when the finale begins (Langsam, Ruhevoll, Empfindung) more slowly than one had expected. Gielen's 24:27 timing is validated, however, by an outpouring of universal faith. This 1997 Third from H”nssler surpasses his superb 1993 version of No. 7 on Intercord. I know there's been a Gielen Mahler Eighth on CD, just recently read a review of the Second by him, and vividly remember a concert Fifth at Cincinnati before I moved to Florida. Whether or not more exist, they should -- of the entire Mahler canon.

If H”nssler's recorded sound has been duplicated in other live performances, listeners worldwide will be richer. I'm still stunned by the achievement here of producer Dorothee Schabert and engineer Frank Wild. The occasional tick of a violin bow against a music stand is the only extraneous noise one hears - the quietness of Freiburg's mid-winter audience is a wonder. If you are a Mahlerian, this is an experience to be treasured. And if you aren't, listen to it and be ensorcled. Nothing else in Mahler's canon comparably exemplifies his declaration in 1907 to Sibelius that a symphony should embrace the entire world.

The Schubert/Webern is a postscript in effect: a 1987 studio performance from Baden-Baden. After Mahler it is severally anti-climactic, from the comparative leanness of recorded sound to Webern's 12-note wisps to Schubert's gemütlich but less than great music, for a libretto so terrible it was withdrawn by the producer after just two performances.

This year's best acquisition to date, despite its year-2000 copyright.