MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in D Minor. 8 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Birgit Remmert, contralto (Symphony); Simon Keenlyside, baritone (Songs); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Women's Choir and Youth Chorus/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.
EMI 556657 (2 CDs) (DDD) (F) TT: 60:52 & 70:30 

Forty years ago this set might have knocked the world on its collective ea—a world that knew the piece only from a Viennese mono melange, conducted by that postwar John the Baptist, F. Charles Adler, on a label I don't recall. Leonard Bernstein hadn't yet revealed many of the work's grander panoplies to us with the still-called NYPSO of 1961 on then-called Columbia. After them a floodgate opened.

Of all the versions on mainstream labels as well as some explorable tributaries, my favorites (so you'll know where I come from) are Václav Neumann's of 1981 with the Czech Philharmonic, the original Bernstein, plus Adrian Leaper's of 1995 on Arte Nova, which is the best of several bargain-label editions.

Now comes Simon Rattle on EMI, preceded by Esa-Pekka Salonen on Sony whom I've yet to hear. Neither has been glowingly reviewed, although Sir Simon would appear to favor a more "traditional" approach. (With Salonen, you never know whether he'll homer, pop-up, or strike out). Anyway, a team from Hayes-Middlesex has given Rattle's reading and the CBSO's playing a beefy, big-hall, 20-bit recording.

Being unfamiliar with his previous Mahler on discs (Symphonies 2 and 4, and one of the Cooke versions of 10) I'm unable to give Rattle's Third a context, except to say that he seems more respectful than demonstratively affectionate. Except for one, terminal, atrocious lapse in judgment, he approaches the music straightforwardly, with several orchestral outbursts in the opening movement of suitably visceral impact. He's a little touristy in the two Salzkammergut and Altersee movements -- Sir Simon's dress code does not comfortably embrace lederhosen and hiking boots. He's slow almost to a fault in the fourth-movement setting for contralto that set some Nietzsche nagging of his fellow Mensch, and he overplays portamento phrasing by the solo winds.

Birmingham's lady choristers and children in the "Bimm, bamm" fifth movement are obviously on spring holiday in edelweiss country (I've never forgotten how overcast the music suddenly became in a Berlin broadcast performance by Michael Gielen years ago). Rattle resists dragging the final Langsam, or shedding crocodile tears such as those Bernstein let flow in his overblown '80s remake, again with the NYP, for DGG.

But, weh!. Sir Simon hangs on to the symphony's loud last chord like Titanic's Kate Winslett to Leonard di Caprio while he turned blue in the icy briny. Given what has been tasteful so far, Rattle's ending is even more vulgar than director James Cameron's in that bloated, banal film.

The baritone solos from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, sung by Simon Keenlyside (with all the flamboyance of Laurence Olivier pretending to be Othello), cannot banish the bad taste of the symphony's conclusion. Until Suraphon restores Neumann, without our needing to buy his less-persuasive Symphony No. 8 on an extra disc, or you're happy with Lenny B. of 1961, Leaper does some vivid things interpretively, with a startlingly adept orchestra at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands—all for less than $10 on Arte Nova.

R.D. (Oct. 1999)