Riccardo Chailly’s way with Mahler is a known quantity thanks to his superb CD cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw, probably the most recommendable complete set with magnificent orchestral playing and stunning sound. He occupies a pragmatic middle ground between the two schools of Mahler style; the classically restrained, if sometimes dull, with the emphasis on structural logic versus the wildly emotive, if self-indulgent, with live-for the-moment thrills and spills. His acute ear for sonority reflects his progressive tendencies but his old school operatic training is evident with his projection of a singing line and careful dramatic pacing. Since moving to Leipzig he seems to have refined his approach to suit the different character of his orchestra with its dark hued strings, mittel-Europa wind timbres and gleaming brass.
The mark of a great orchestra is the quality and focus of playing at the lowest dynamic levels – listen to the closing moments of the Adagietto; the strings fading to the merest whisper yet still perfectly blended together like a delicate silken thread. Chailly’s ability to clarify telling details is typified by the empty rattle of hard-stick timpani strokes in the opening funeral march that are so often lost in the mix. Refined and polished as they are, the players throw themselves into the second movement with ferocious attack and vehemence – the big chorale tune arrives with an overwhelming sense of triumph.
The central scherzo is a showpiece with Chailly and the orchestra negotiating its tricky transitions with idiomatic aplomb. The Adagietto is a delicate love-song rather than a funeral dirge and the Rondo finale a playful expression of joy with its Bachian counterpoint bubbling along like a tipsy Meistersinger – the concluding bars are driven home with a perfectly judged balance of precision and abandon. Sound and vision is superb and there is an illuminating interview with Chailly.