“Tradition,” Mahler famously said, “ist Schlamperei.” But while as a conductor he banished the laziness of routine and brought about sweeping reforms to the practice and rituals of orchestral and operatic performance, his own works have a more complex relationship with tradition: their modernity is predicated on a critical engagement with both tradition and a special sort of nostalgia. Teodor Currentzis and his musicAeterna orchestra have just released a recording of the Sixth Symphony, and Mahler – especially the Wunderhorn songs and Fourth Symphony programmed here – represent a fascinating departure for a conductor-orchestra team so memorable in brilliantly fresh but esoteric Mozart, blistering Beethoven and forensically obsessive Tchaikovsky.

Teodor Currentzis
© Olya Runyova

There was certainly never any danger of these performances resorting to “Schlamperei”. Every facet of Currentzis’s Mahler is thought out afresh, every detail of the score scrutinized, every note pored over, every dynamic marking measured and gauged. In each bar one senses the amount of rehearsal he and his Perm-based musicians – all young, dynamic and visibly energised by their conductor – have benefitted from. The sound they make, with sparing vibrato in the strings, is lean and lithe, astonishingly transparent and clear, and covers the broadest possible dynamic range. You can almost feel, if not air from another planet, then at least a bracing Siberian breeze whipping through the Austro-Hungarian landscape of Mahler’s scores. 

The world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs was suddenly brought to life in arrestingly vivid colour, every line of Mahler’s word-painting thrown into sharp relief, the humour of such gems as "Rheinlegendchen" und "Lob des hohen Verstandes" bright and unusually breezy, not least as sung by the infinitely engaging Anna Lucia Richter. The soprano was reserved primarily for the lighter numbers, to which she brought a gleeful sense of storytelling and an impressive array of rustic accents. The heavy emotional lifting was left therefore largely to baritone Florian Boesch, whose distinctive vocalism – an unvarnished directness of expression with few consoling singerly niceties ­– made for compelling performances of the opening "Schildwache Nachtlied" and, in particular, "Der Tambourg’sell", masterfully controlled by Currentzis, despite a surprising false start. Boesch was no less arresting in "Revelge", crowned by one of the most raucous martial episodes I’ve ever heard. The songs where the two singers joined forces, meanwhile, were equally memorable, especially a "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" of almost unbearable tenderness.

What made for such revelatory performances in the songs proved more problematic in the symphony after the interval, however. The playing of the orchestra – performing the whole work standing up – was no less compelling. If the cellos might have looked like stick-in-the-muds having to sit down, they compensated with playing especially notable for its wit, lightness and incisiveness. But without the warm, humanizing influence of the singers, Currentzis’s Mahler suddenly felt a little chilly. The brilliant surface teamed with details, with arresting hairpin dynamics, shattering climaxes and sudden Pianissimi, but one was increasingly aware, especially in the Philharmonie’s bright acoustic, of the brittleness of the sound, of its lack of warm, generous core. 

I began to wonder what Currentzis’s view of the piece actually was, beyond a glittering showpiece that allowed him to show what he and his orchestra were capable of. Certainly what he and his players are capable of remained staggering, and the effect, for example, in the ethereal postlude of the slow movement, as the high violins delicately warmed their tone, will stick in the memory. But not even Richter’s return – the soprano swept in, replete with new frock, at the Adagio’s grand climax – could bring the necessary warmth and affection. Her singing of the heavenly finale was strangely pale, her intonation affected by the decision, presumably encouraged by Currentzis, to cut vibrato to a minimum.