March 05, 2009


Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Lucia Popp, soprano; Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano; Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor; René Pape, bass; London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. LPO. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Artek. $16.99.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5. Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Ambroisie. $16.99.

      There are enough versions of all these symphonies available to make it a safe bet that few listeners will pick any of these recordings as a first choice. For a second or third version of the music, though, all these CDs are worth considering: each is quirky in its own way, none is close to definitive (to the extent that these symphonies will ever have definitive performances), but all offer some unusual perspectives on the music and some insights that set them apart from other performances.

      Klaus Tennstedt’s Beethoven Ninth is the most intriguing of these discs. Recorded live in October 1992, two years before ill health forced Tennstedt to retire, it is an unapologetically old-fashioned, even Victorian-style treatment of the Ninth, giving it a cathedral-like structure that hints in parts at Bruckner while pacing the work generally slowly and with great majesty. The forces are large, the chorus full, the brass round and full-throated, the strings warm, and the percussion emphatic – the second movement is a real rouser, especially after a first movement that opens by plumbing near-Lisztian depths. The third movement wears its emotion frankly on its sleeve, and the finale simply bursts forth with the sort of intensity that Leopold Stokowski brought to his arrangements of Bach. Tennstedt’s Ninth may not be idiomatic Beethoven, but it hits every emotional button there is. In the finale, the singers are with the conductor all the way, with the lovely soprano of Lucia Popp (who died a year after this recording was made) soaring effortlessly above while the broad, round tones of René Pape provide the firmest of foundations. Ann Murray and Anthony Rolfe Johnson also acquit themselves admirably. But this is really Tennstedt’s show, as is especially clear whenever the chorus enters with as full and intense a sound as one would expect in Mahler. Indeed, there is something Mahlerian about this entire performance: grandiose, yes, but also world-spanningly intense and emotionally very strong. This is Beethoven that leaves a listener more drained than exalted – but it is convincing on its own terms.

      Gerard Schwarz’ Mahler Sixth is less so. Schwarz is proving himself surprisingly adept in his new series of Mahler symphonies with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – his recording of the Seventh is excellent – but he is a bit off the mark this time. Schwarz seems to see this symphony as a series of episodes, emphasizing its tempo and mood changes while downplaying its tight formal and key structure (three of the four movements are in A minor). As a result, this deeply felt and very intense work, often called Mahler’s “Tragic” symphony, seems to meander without focus much of the time. The opening march, for example, is nowhere near as crisp as it should be, and when the lovely second theme, possibly representing Mahler’s wife Alma, enters, the movement changes character altogether instead of growing in depth. Schwarz also makes a curious decision in the order of the movements: he plays the Andante Moderato second and the Scherzo third. Mahler himself couldn’t make up his mind about the best order – wherever you put the Scherzo, you get two consecutive A minor movements – but he eventually decided to have the Scherzo come second, and that seems structurally more convincing: in that position, the Scherzo continues to build the intensity of the first movement, with the Andante providing a modicum of relief before the huge finale again brings pain and woe. As Schwarz plays the movements, the finale starts as a bit of an anticlimax after the Scherzo’s conclusion; and there is a certain turgidity to the last movement throughout. Oddly, the booklet notes to the CD mention the uncertain placement of the middle movements and then state that this performance puts the Scherzo second. The error is symptomatic of a Mahler Sixth that offers some lovely detailing but that never effectively produces an overarching architecture of tragedy steeped in melody.

      Jaap van Zweden’s performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 does get some of the work’s tragedy right – the first three movements are all, at the very least, melancholy – but this well-played CD is strongest in the finale, which van Zweden gives a thoroughly triumphal air. This is an exhilarating conclusion – a vast distance from the very slow finales that some conductors have become fond of as they attempt to show that Shostakovich did not really cave in to Soviet pressure in writing this symphony. In fact, like Tennstedt’s Beethoven Ninth, van Zweden’s Shostakovich Fifth is a bit of a throwback, since conductors used to take the finale at its triumphal face value and not worry about any possible political undercurrents. Unfortunately, van Zweden emphasizes the dark elements of the first three movements so effectively that the finale seems almost to belong to another work – one of Shostakovich’s earlier theater pieces, perhaps. The symphony founders on its lack of unity, sounding a bit as if van Zweden has not thought through the relationships among the movements, or has not found any worth exploring. This is by no means a bad performance (although it is a pricey one, with nothing on the CD except the 47-minute symphony); but neither is it a particularly thoughtful rendition. It does have its moments, though, especially in that slam-bang conclusion.

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