Mahler himself called his Sixth Symphony the "Tragic," and described it as posing "riddles" accessible only to those who had "digested" his earlier symphonies. As always, he made extensive alterations not only during rehearsals but also after the publication of the score and the 1906 premiere, producing two authentic versions; the existence of a third is in dispute. He revised the orchestration, including the number of the famous hammer strokes, and changed the sequence of the two middle movements, causing still unresolved confusion and dissention. This recording opts for the sequence of the first version and the instrumentation of the second.
Cast in four movements, the Symphony is purely orchestral and relatively traditional; however, its initial vehemence and ultimate bleak despair contrast starkly with Mahler's successful personal and professional life at the time. His wife later explained this with dubious autobiographical and symbolic interpretations involving herself, their children, even premonitions about Mahler's own health and the still undreamed of future European catastrophes. She also described it as his most personal, deeply felt work, recalling that they both wept when he first played it for her. Indeed, its emotional immediacy, its extreme mood swings--from driving violence to melting lyricism, from playfulness to bitter parody, from triumph to hopelessness--seem to mirror Mahler's mercurial, tormented personality.
The performance is austere, intense, and expansive, but never sentimental, lush, or really warm, even in the profoundly moving Andante. The climaxes soar ecstatically, the Scherzo is diabolical, the opening menacing, the trills and hammer blows terrifying. The single-movement Piano Quartet, a student work, is mostly of historical interest, thematically, harmonically and texturally so primitive that the metamorphosis to Mahler's "real" style appears quite miraculous. The orchestra's fine principals with Eschenbach as pianist do their imaginative best, adding dynamics, rubatos, drama, and excitement. --Edith Eisler