Abbado's Berlin remake of the Mahler 6th is Grammophone magazine's 2006 "record of the year". I wish I could be THAT enthusiastic. It is quite good, with a nice, natural "flow" from start to finish. In fact, there's little that can be faulted. Abbado performs the inner movements in andante/scherzo order, which is now the only way sanctioned by the Mahler P.C. possee (funny how nobody had a problem with it being performed scherzo/andante for four decades or so). Yet, a couple of minor oddities do exist. I like how he trims the slow movement (andante moderato) down to 14 minutes here. However, he also kind of short changes a wonderful passage that's located about six minutes into the andante, where the unison horns lead us up into the Austrian highlands, immediately followed by the cowbells first onstage entrance; which, in turn, is accompanied by a naive sounding solo trumpet. Compare the identical passage to Boulez/Vienna Phil., and you'll instantly know which orchestra is located closer to those Alps. Later on, as the loud unison horns lead us on to the slow movement's climactic passage, Mahler again sounds the cowbells - onstage. They're hard to detect here, but practically bury the horns on the recent Eschenbach/Philadelphia M6 from Ondine. I prefer Abbado's pacing, but Eshenbach nails these key signposts better. Also at that climactic passage, instead of putting all of Philly's energies into the top melodic line, Eschenbach makes certain that Mahler's rich, turn-of-the-century harmonies are very clearly defined.
The 30 minute finale goes off without a hitch either. Yet, Abbado fails to scare us much during that weird passage that's located between the two hammer strokes - the one that I affectionately dub, "the wild ride of the headless horsemen across the scared battle plains of Flounders". I'm adding much hyperbole here, but compare the very same passage to Eschenbach/Philly - yet again. Eschenbach makes the start of this section as weird and scarry as humanly possible. He takes it slow - "boom; smash; bop; wham!" - and he really brings out the percussion. Much has been made of Abbado's two hammerstrokes. Yet, a couple of odd things happen with these as well. On the first one, Abbado doubles it with the tam-tam (large gong); something that's not in any of the printed versions. On the second stroke, the bass drum is actually louder than the hammer mechanism itself (usually a large wooden mallet struck on a large wooden box or chopping block). Frankly, these minor points don't mean so much, in and of themselves. Mahler basically just wanted a non-metallic "thud" sound.
No, I think what bothers me most is something that's difficult to define. The timbre of the orchestra itself - at least on this recording - is really rather monochromatic. Everything is sort of a dark, chocolate-y sonority. The woodwinds are there, but there's no pungency or brilliance to their sound. As a result, they hardly cut through Mahler's dense textures. It's as though every instrument may as well be a bassoon. The low brass is often times too light in weight, especially the tuba. At the loudest passages, Mahler is transformed into having that sort of Brahmsian sound; where everything sounds dark and muddy, yet bright and screechy - all at the same time. It's difficult to describe, but far easier to demonstate: just turn to Eschenbach/Philadelphia. With Philly, it's as though one or two other dimensions have suddenly been added. The low strings and high strings are just as strong as those in Berlin. Yet, there's more pungency and timbral distinction from the winds. The Philly low brass is much stronger, and the trumpets have a more piercing quality. It's as though Philly were the Czech Phil. or St. Petersburg Phil. on steroids. Berlin comes across as a very good, enlarged German chamber orchestra - I don't know how else to describe the difference. Granted, some of this has to do with the difference in recording companies, and the difference in acoustics. But some of this definitely has something to do with the differences in tone production. The kind of sound that the Berlin Phil. makes is near ideal for Brahms and Richard Strauss. I'm not so sure that it's anywhere near ideal for Mahler 6. Why do I say that?
Well, let's examine the piece itself. In a sense, the sixth is Mahler's most German and, at the same time, ANTI-German work. It's really kind of a protest piece - a protest against the ever increasing militaristic direction that the German speaking world was taking at that time. As such, the symphony is predominately in minor, and the textures tend to be very dense in many, many spots (Richard Strauss, of all people, allegedly remarked that the sixth had been over-orchestrated). Low strings tend to march and growl a lot, as do the tuba and bassoons. When the high strings aren't playing a beautiful melody, they're usually doing something to just add to the general "screech" level. Horns tend to be sort of dark and muddy sounding instruments when dwelling in their middle register, which they do a lot of here. It's really only the woowinds and trumpets that provide much needed relief from everthing that is either marching, growling, or schreeching on top. I submit that you're not getting enough of that "relief" when hearing the Berlin Phil. in this music. It's not a huge issue, as they're obviously playing the piece, but you do immediately notice the difference when you switch too any number of other recordings. I've simply been using Eschenbach/Philadelphia as a reference point.
In the final analysis, there really isn't any shortage of great Mahler 6 recordings. You could really almost choose one by what your favorite orchestra is. Truth be told, if it weren't for the horrible, metallic "ping" hammerstrokes, my favorite Mahler 6 of any would be Dohnanyi/Cleveland (Decca). But for a single disc version, I recommend Boulez/Vienna Phil. (you can always switch the inner movements, if that's a big issue). For a two-disc version, I like Eschenbach/Philly or Jansons/Concertgebouw (low level recording - needs to be turned way up!).