July 24, 2008


Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Artek. $16.99.

Nielsen: Symphonies No. 2 (“The Four Temperaments”) and 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”). Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR conducted by Michael Schønwandt. Naxos. $8.99.

      Performers create expectations – to which they then live up or down. Here are two CDs for which listeners would do better to set their expectations aside. For example, one does not expect the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to be particularly well-suited to the sonic richness of Mahler; and Gerard Schwarz is scarcely the first conductor whose name comes to mind as a Mahler specialist. But this recording of Mahler’s Seventh is quite exceptionally good. That may be because the symphony itself doesn’t quite fit neatly into the Mahler canon. So strange are its instrumentation and its tonic restlessness (it constantly strays from major to minor and back) that Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke, who prepared the first performing edition of the unfinished Tenth, gave the Seventh the subtitle “Mad.” But it is a fine madness here. Schwarz gives the first movement shrill, percussive treatment, and if the strings are not as warm as one expects for Mahler, they are solid and rhythmically attentive. Schwarz appreciates the oddities of scoring in this sprawling, discontinuous movement, and the result is a thrilling performance. In the first Nachtmusik, which follows, Schwarz emphasizes grotesqueries of rhythm and instrumentation, so the movement sounds very modern – but the lyricism really flows in the gorgeous central section. The Scherzo is genuinely spooky at the start, with Schwarz focusing on its dissonances and giving it the sort of flickering quality usually associated with (for example) the Scherzo of Bruckner’s Ninth. It is only in the second Nachtmusik that Schwarz’s approach falters: this movement is a little too hard-edged and surface-level, and is not true to the “amoroso” part of its “Andante amoroso” designation. The huge final Rondo, though, works splendidly – as it often does not in other performances. It can easily feel tacked on, so different is it in character from the first four movements, but Schwarz makes a strong case for it as the symphony’s capstone, emphasizing the timpani tattoos in a boisterous, rowdy performance that ends in a burst of joy. This is one of the best Mahler Sevenths currently available – a very pleasant surprise indeed.

      The surprise is not quite so pleasant in Michael Schønwandt’s handling of Nielsen’s Second and Third Symphonies. The expectation here is excellence and thorough familiarity with the music, and that is just what the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR delivers in the Third Symphony. The wordless voices of Inger Dam-Jensen and Poul Elming fit Nielsen’s sound beautifully in the slow movement, and the symphony feels tightly integrated – including its problematic finale, which can be a real letdown through the comparatively ordinary nature of its themes and Nielsen’s handling of them. Not so here: Schønwandt pushes the movement effectively, refusing to let it drag, and as a result the symphony becomes a thoroughly integrated experience from start to finish. But the results in the Second Symphony are, surprisingly, something of a disappointment. This is a deliberately episodic work, with each movement representing one of the “temperaments” once thought to be defined by excesses of specific bodily fluids: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. Nielsen paints each temperament very skillfully, allowing only brief respite – for purely musical reasons – from the primary driving forces of each movement. But Schønwandt overemphasizes those contrasting sections throughout the work, perhaps seeking a more “musicianly” reading of the symphony but in fact spoiling its deliberately programmatic (and intentionally rather superficial) approach. As a result, none of the four temperaments seems to be painted in primary colors – they are shaded and nuanced, which is exactly what Nielsen did not intend. The symphony is certainly well played, and in light of the fact that this recording dates to 1999 – it was originally released by Dacapo – there could well be a more effective Nielsen Second from these forces one of these days. For now, Schønwandt’s Nielsen Third is ample reason to consider this CD a success.

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