November 25, 2009


Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $8.99.

     It was the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln – then known as the Cologne City Orchestra – that gave the first performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on October 18, 1904, with the composer conducting. While it is a mistake to believe that this history gives the current orchestra’s players some sort of mystical connection to the work – after all, every single orchestra member today is different from the ones who first played it – there is no doubt that Cologne is proud of its Mahler associations, and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln works hard to maintain a special claim to his music. Or perhaps the phrase is “plays hard,” because the orchestra, under Chief Conductor Markus Stenz, certainly takes on the Fifth with intensity and enthusiasm. And the results are excellent throughout, from the opening trumpet call to the strongly accented second movement; from the well-paced and bucolic third movement, through the always beautiful Adagietto (here with a bit more bite than usual), and into a propulsive finale that flows naturally from what has gone before and comes across as the symphony’s capstone, not (as in some other performances) an afterthought. One thing that Stenz and the orchestra do particularly well is contrast the quieter, chamber-music-like portions of the symphony with its grand tutti sections; for example, the very soft ending of the first movement here sounds just right, so the explosive attacca of the second creates the strongest possible contrast. The sound quality boosts the performance’s effectiveness: this is a particularly clearly recorded SACD, in which the absolute silences are as impressive as the loudest sections of the symphony. This is the first release in what is planned as a Mahler cycle; and while there are now a number of good complete-Mahler-symphony recordings, Stenz and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln seem likely – if they continue as they have begun – to produce one of the best.

     Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are already well on their way to producing what could be the best Shostakovich cycle of all. Their new recording of Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9 fulfills the promise of their first CD, of Symphony No. 11 – an unusual choice to start a complete set of Shostakovich symphonies, but one that they pulled off brilliantly. Now they have turned to better-known, more-often-heard symphonies and produced equally fine results. The surprising thing here is the attention Petrenko gives to the quiet passages – an approach that would seem to make more sense in, say, Mahler, than in Shostakovich, who often comes across with all the subtlety of a battering ram. Petrenko finds subtleties in these works that most other conductors miss or gloss over: the solo violin passages in No. 5, for example, and the quicksilver flashiness of the third movement of No. 9 – here taken at a true Presto, which is how it is marked but which is a tempo that conductors rarely attempt for it. Because Petrenko is at such pains to get the details and quiet passages of these symphonies right, the more bombastic – and simply louder – music comes off far better as well. The problematic finale of No. 5, for example, starts with speed and triumphalism, but by the last section – which Petrenko, like some other conductors, takes quite slowly – there is an ambiguity about the movement that fits well with current thinking that this work was less a celebration of Socialist Realism than a necessary accommodation to it. As for No. 9, its classical balance and sardonic modernism exist in an uneasy melding here – witness, among many examples, the piccolo tune in the first movement – and the result is a symphony that keeps listeners slightly off-balance in a very engaging and thought-provoking way. Indeed, “thought-provoking” is a good description of all three Shostakovich symphonies recorded so far by Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, of which he has been Principal Conductor since 2006. Petrenko has some genuine insights into Shostakovich’s music, and will hopefully continue sharing them with listeners as this series progresses.

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