Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99 (SACD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99 (SACD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Miah Persson, soprano; Christianne Stotlin, mezzo-soprano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Bernard Haitink. CSO Resound. $24.99 (2 CDs).
The dynamics of the recording industry have changed in ways that do not favor major symphony orchestras. For decades, the orchestras received a reliable revenue stream from major-label sales of their performances. But the proliferation of recordings of similar repertoire and the overall decline in sales of classical music – and, recently, sales of CDs in general – knocked the bottom out of a business model that relied on third-party recording and promotion. The more forward-looking orchestras decided to take control of the process, on the basis that if there would be fewer recordings sold, at least they should keep a higher percentage of the revenue. Both the Bavarian Radio Symphony and the Chicago Symphony have gone this private-label route; and if the economics have yet to be proved, one thing that is certain is that the arrangement makes some top-notch performances available to listeners at home – performances that might otherwise not be available at all. In the case of two new BR Klassik discs and one new CSO Resound release, the recordings are of live performances that would have vanished into the proverbial ether after the concerts – and having them available for repeated listening is a genuine pleasure. These are all excellent, thoughtful versions of major symphonies, featuring top-notch orchestras and conductors who exude a sense of sure style and strong interpretative opinions.
To the extent that there is anything competitive about these self-released performances, the Bavarians have the better of it. The orchestra has a pure, well-balanced sound and a rich fullness that fits both Bruckner and Mahler exceptionally well. Mariss Jansons favors large gestures and considerable dynamism in the symphonies, giving Bruckner’s Seventh full scope and scale – and tremendous forward motion. This is a performance that scales heights rather than one that sings and lingers, although the softer and gentler passages certainly get their due. Jansons builds the symphony carefully, from its mysterious opening through its propulsive finale, producing a genuinely monumental reading in which Bruckner seems to mount one height only to begin to ascend the next. Well paced, strongly played and sweeping in scale, this Bruckner Seventh is both moving and thrilling.
Jansons’ Mahler Seventh is even better. Mahler’s most difficult symphony to grasp – Deryck Cooke called it the “Mad,” although a name combining “Night” with “Naïve” would be more appropriate – the Seventh is an uneasy mixture of the dark and foreboding (at the start), the quiet and restful (the two “Nachtmusik” movements), and a finale so bright and blaring that it can easily getaway from the performers and bewilder the audience. Pulling the disparate elements together is no small feat, and Jansons does so with aplomb. Each movement gets careful attention to detail, both in the chamber-music-like passages in which Mahler abounds and in the grand climaxes for which he is better known. The naïve elements, such as cowbells, are well integrated into the sophisticated rhythms and harmonies. And the finale bounds to center stage with a brilliantly rousing timpani opening and then never lets go, as Jansons makes its insistent major-key brightness the brilliance of sunshine after a long, dark night of the soul. This is a reading that is thoroughly convincing on all levels.
Bernard Haitink’s new Mahler Second is not quite at the same level, and the CSO Resound release asks a bit more of listeners than do the two from BR Klassik. This is a two-CD set, but the first CD contains only the 20-minute first movement, so it seems a bit unreasonable to price the recording at $24.99 (there is also an SACD version for $29.99). Haitink is one of the world’s great Mahler conductors, and he clearly knows the “Resurrection” score inside and out; the Chicago Symphony is a world-class orchestra and one of the finest in the United States; but the Chicagoans lack the warmth and fullness of the Bavarian musicians and other top European orchestras; and there are a few irritating mannerisms in this performance – a touch too much speed here, a bit of an unnecessary ritard there – that make it less than exemplary, although still very fine. The best moment is the start of the fourth movement, when Christianne Stotlin’s gorgeously warm mezzo-soprano voice emerges with strength as well as a plaintive quality. And there are many other outstanding elements in this performance, from the grand climaxes of the first movement to the sinuous weaving of the main part of the Scherzo to the power of the chorus in the finale. If this is not quite the ne plus ultra of Mahler Seconds, it is nevertheless a distinguished performance deserving of considerable applause – which, however, is not heard on the recoding (applause is included on the two BR Klassik discs). Whether releases such as those from CSO Resound and BR Klassik will help orchestras’ bottom lines is by no means certain, but it is certain that they provide listeners who could not attend the concerts themselves with welcome opportunities to hear some really excellent music making.