MAHLER:  Symphony No. 6 in A Minor "Tragic," with alternative version of Finale, plus lecture disc)
Philharmonia Orch/Benjamin Zander, cond.
TELARC 3CD 80586 (F) (3 CDs for price of 1)) (DDD) TT:  3 hrs. 19 min.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A minor "Tragic"
Orchestre National de France/Bernard Haitink, cond.
NA¤VE  4937 (F) (DDD) TT: 78:23

Telarc's Sixth incorporates a "gimmick" with its two alternative versions of the Finale. Briefly, Mahler originally punctuated this movement with three powerful hammerblows, deleting the third when he revised the symphony. Conductors who choose to restore the third one have done so, inauthentically, in the context of the revised orchestration. Zander, who has variously played this movement both ways, here offers both options: two hammerblows in the Finale's familiar revision, and three hammerblows amid the original orchestration. Sounds good, but it's neither fish nor fowl: only the passage surrounding that third hammerblow is actually played in the original version, spliced into (presumably) the same performance of the revised Finale! So this still isn't really an "authentic" edition.

Ironically, Zander's Mahler doesn'Ýt need the gimmick. His unfolding cycle has moved from strength to strength, and this distinctive Sixth, in whichever version, stands on a par with his outstanding Fifth.

If commentators frequently describe this symphony's Finale as a protagonist's valiant but ultimately failed struggle, Zander's performance extends this metaphor over the entire symphony. Thus, the opening march tread, usually played for menace, is here stoic and resolute, as if already facing defeat in the subsequent bleak, uncompromising tutti. The development's more sparsely scored episodes evoke desolation, with the distantly clanking cowbells, in this context, eerie rather than pastoral. The recap is heavily emphatic, but the trumpet motifs pierce the long coda chillingly.

Zander achieves the best realization yet of the Scherzo's opening, the cross-accents in the tympani and basses even more distinct than under Mehta (Teldec 4509-98423-2) or Haitink in his new account. The oboe and violin touch the detached notes of the second theme with delicate charm. The handsome Andante is an island of shimmering serenity, but even so, in the contrasting episode, the strings, taking up the clarinet's searching theme, transform it into an outpouring of desperation. Later, the horn fanfares, backed by cowbells, briefly bring a Wagnerian jubilation. (That the humble cowbells can be deployed with such divergent results testifies to Zander's attention to detail.)

The Finale resumes the stoic manner of the first movement. Zander plays up the Expressionist quality of the more angular, dissonant figures, and underlines the bite of low-midrange instruments in the march themes, whose grim strut makes me look forward to the conductor's planned "Resurrection."

The Philharmonia, as throughout this series, responds alertly and enthusiastically. The principal horn's full-throated legato is exceptional, and, indeed, the round, well-balanced brass choir stands in impressive relief against the elegantly nuanced solo woodwinds. The strings are warm and expressive. Clothed in Telarc's sumptuous sonics, and with the three discs (including the conductor's customary lecture disc) priced as one, newcomers needn't hesitate, and, for experienced Mahlerians, it's a good complement to Boulez (DG 445 835-2).

Against such a wealth of riches, the arrival of HaitinkÝs latest outing - drawn from concerts in October 2001 - is badly timed. Still, it's worth hearing for the minor miracle Haitink works, in shaping the balky Orchestre National into a real Mahler sound, dark, weighty, and compact. The playing is scrupulously clear; as usual with Haitink, every note, even in fast filigree, registers with full-bodied tone, producing unusual impact.

The first two movements - like Zander, Haitink places the Scherzo second - though conventional, are dramatic and powerful, and nicely relaxed in the contrasting episodes. Signs of Haitink's old, poker-faced manner crop up in the restrained pace of the first-movement Coda, as well as in the Scherzo's brief outbursts, which have sounded more frenetic elsewhere. The Andante begins unpromisingly - frowzy, opaque violins answered by a tired horn - but as the movement gathers impulse, the playing becomes brighter and more attentive. As with much of Haitink's Mahler, the long Finale crowns the performance, projected in a single inexorable arch, with power and, yes, passion. Some phrases emerge as punchy and overaccented, but the final "defeat" is unusually grim.

Despite my passing reservations, this remains the best of Haitink's commercial Sixths. The Concertgebouw account (in Philips's Bargain Box, 442050-2, 10 CDs) is, simply, stolid and grey, while his more flexible remake (Philips 26257, 2 CDs, with the Wayfarer Songs) suffers the unidiomatic Berlin sound - this was a Karajan piece - and wrong-end-of-the-telescope engineering. (The Amsterdam concert recording in Q Disc's 14-CD Haitink set of live performances, available in Europe, is supposed to be stunning, but I haven't heard it.) Na´ve's engineering is excellent - harder and less transparent than Telarc's, I suspect it represents the quality of the actual playing.

S.F.V. (February 2003)