Orozco-Estrada/Tonkünstler: Mahler’s Sixth Played from Below

10/01/2015

 Prokofiev: Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor), Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich. Großer Saal of the Musikverein, Vienna. 19.12.2014 (SS)

Ives: The Unanswered Question
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor

Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s counter-seasonal Christmas programmes have concentrated in recent years on Mahler – a pity, really, less because of Mahler overkill in Vienna (Beethoven and Brahms are far more done to death) than the Schubert A flat Mass Orozco-Estrada did just before switching to Mahler symphonies. This was Schubert done with large enough orchestral and choral forces to rival the resplendence of the souped-up Sawallisch/BRSO benchmark recording, but resplendence shot through with more drama and fire than Sawallisch mustered, so it didn’t sound nearly so old-fashioned as the Goossens-esque optics looked. It was the best thing I’ve heard from Lower Austrian Tonkünstler under Orozco-Estrada, their chief conductor since 2009, and a ‘sacred Schubert’ cycle of the A flat, the even more glorious other late Mass, no. 6 in E flat, and maybe Lazarus would have been something fine and a little off the beaten track to remember his tenure by.

Still, Orozco-Estrada sees himself as a Mahler conductor and the Mahler he’s done with the orchestra has had similar scope and energy. He’s not a conductor who specializes in innovatively rethinking or even lightly tweaking these symphonies, and scarcely any details break with narrative orthodoxy. But a binary upheld as far as score-reading goes was shattered elsewhere: a bit like that Schubert Mass, this Mahler Sixth seemed liberated from tradition even as Orozco-Estrada went about impassionedly tearing into the Alma theme with ardour enough to summon the ghost of Cecil B. DeMille. It was uncanny how this entire performance, done in a high Romantic state of near-constant emotional turbulence, didn’t sound especially atavistic.

The sound of the orchestra added another layer of differentiation. If this Sixth Symphony ends up released on disc (like the Mahler 1 the Tonkünstler recorded live in this hall near the beginning of Orozco-Estrada’s directorship), it’s something the sound engineering will hopefully capture and preserve because it’s quite distinctive. It’s a chunky, bottom-heavy sound not only dominated by low instruments, but with the cellos sounding almost like double basses and the violas like cellos. That might sound as mobile as solid oak, but Orozco-Estrada gets it off the floor with improbable lift and for such a hulking sound the orchestra is highly responsive under his baton (it’s a different story with their principal guest conductor Michail Jurowski, under whom they leave giant lumbering footprints). Getting flexibility without ditching the thickness doesn’t just sit there for show either. A virtue of doing so much Mahler in this style is how Orozco-Estrada is now able to exploit this, using all the brawny but limber instrumental power at his disposal to push drama and acoustic material to their limits. Thematic material is swept along with acute rhythmic precision and astringent attack, blurring the lines with what Adorno observed as the ‘physiognomies of instruments that leap untamed from the tutti’, although these too were fully there in this Sixth, with plucked notes that smacked the fingerboard, screeching winds, and a mighty hammer thud which triggered an amusingly thick layer of dust to rise like a cloud. With the tutti already pretty untamed it sounds like total cacophony, but there all along is the solidity at the bottom which performs the neat sonic trick of cushioning the extreme effects without neutralizing them. You hear the clarinets shriek, but they don’t make your ears bleed.

The Mahler was preceded by Ives’s Unanswered Question, which presumably gets programmed with the Sixth due to perceived affinity with the pastoral interlude in Mahler’s first movement, but comes off pretty poorly in actual proximity to it. The debunking is almost embarrassing, really. Of course if any enterprising Viennese orchestra wants to do something actually novel by playing Ives’s Third or Fourth Symphony instead of a pat throwaway, that would be nice.

Seb Smallshaw

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