April 22, 2010


Beethoven: Symphony No.9. Christiane Oelze, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, mezzo-soprano; Christoph Strehl, tenor; David Wilson-Johnson, bass-baritone; Collegium Vocale Gent, Academia Chigiana Siena and Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Sinéad Mulhern, soprano; Carolin Masur, mezzo-soprano; Dominik Wortig, tenor; Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritone; Chœur de Chambres les Éléments and La Chambre Philharmonique conducted by Emmanuel Krivine. Naïve. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Yvonne Kenny, soprano; Jard van Nes, mezzo-soprano; London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Two of the greatest choral symphonies of all time here receive performances ranging from the excellent, on the “low” end, to the truly exceptional. Philippe Herreweghe’s Beethoven Ninth, which by any ordinary standards is a first-rate reading, is in this company not quite at the ultra-highest level. At the start, Herreweghe offers a robust, quick opening, not mysterious but emphatic. Throughout the first movement, Herreweghe’s clarity ties this work to the Classical period, even downplaying the timpani strokes; as a whole, the movement is speedy but does not feel rushed. In the scherzo, Herreweghe’s timpani are more muffled than reverberant – clearly the conductor’s intention, since PentaTone’s SACD has, as usual, very fine sound – and the horns are quite good, although the winds are slightly reticent. The movement is effective but a bit lacking in intensity. In the third movement, Herreweghe makes the Adagio molto e cantabile almost an Allegretto: it is not a relaxation from what has gone before. The movement is sweet and pleasant, with relaxing flow but no strong emotion. Then, in the finale, Herreweghe’s opening is striking, but there is little intensity in the musical rejections of excerpts from the earlier movements. The vocal quartet blends well, although listeners will not be able to follow along with the words: for some strange reason, PentaTone does not provide Schiller’s text. The chorus sings very clearly, notably in softer sections. As a soloist, soprano Christiane Oelze is particularly good. And the finale’s coda is very well done, with more drama than the rest of the movement. On balance, Herreweghe’s performance is strong but a touch lacking in grandeur – it is not inappropriately monumental, but neither is it particularly majestic.

     Emmanuel Krivine, whose ensemble uses original instruments and whose performance was recorded live, takes a very different approach. The opening of the first movement is intense, although with less bite to the horns than in Herreweghe’s version, and is more propulsive despite its slower tempo – all Krivine’s tempos are a bit slower than Herreweghe’s. As the first movement unfolds, Krivine makes the timpani very dramatic, the more so because of his careful instrumental balance, especially between brass and winds. The rhythms are felt unusually strongly here. In the scherzo, Krivine is fleet, slower than Herreweghe but feeling faster, with lighter texture and a bouncy, scurrying quality rarely heard in this music. The solos by bassoon and timpani come through particularly well. Then Krivine gives the third movement a gentle, almost pastoral opening, with an overall soothing feel and some yearning in the strings that is proto-Romantic. And in the finale, Krivine creates a real but brief shock as the movement opens, with especially strong timpani, and makes the “rejection” section almost regretful. The vocal quartet is very fine; bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff and tenor Dominik Wortig sing particularly well. So does the chorus, which enunciates clearly and, despite being French, brings real feeling to the German words (which Naïve does provide). The martial music, which can stick out oddly, here fits perfectly with the words “wie ein Held zum Siegen” – “like a hero going to victory.” And there is a beautifully ethereal quality to “Such’ ihn über Sternenzelt” – “seek Him above the stars.” The result of all these elements is a poetic, flowing performance with an unforced orchestral blending perhaps attributable in part to the use of original instruments but surely due more strongly to the conductor’s skill. This is a Beethoven Ninth to cherish.

     The new Mahler “Resurrection” on LPO is one to cherish, too. The performance itself, of course, could scarcely be new: Klaus Tennstedt died in 1998. But this is a newly released performance that was, at the time it was recorded live, famous. Tennstedt did a fine studio recording of this symphony for EMI in 1982, but by February 1989, when he conducted this version with the London Philharmonic, he had been forced by illness to resign as the orchestra’s principal conductor and was already noticeably frail from the cancer that would eventually kill him. Tennstedt’s podium manner, never very emphatic or dramatic, was said to be even limper than usual by 1989, but he must have been in telepathic communication with Mahler’s spirit to have produced the astonishingly full-bodied and intensely dramatic reading of the “Resurrection” recorded more than 20 years ago and kept away from the public, by contract, for two decades. The new LPO release is that recording, and it is one the finest Tennstedt ever made and one of the best Mahler Seconds on disc. It is slow (93 minutes), grand, deeply tragic almost throughout (even the second movement providing little relief from the first), and so heartfelt that the final chorus raises the spirits in an almost physically uplifting way. Mahler said the first movement represented the funeral of the hero from his First Symphony, and Tennstedt certainly treats it as a grandly spun-out funeral march, its repeated climaxes verging on the depressive. The second movement is more solemn than usual, its gentle dance theme taking on an air of sadness as the dances do in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and Sibelius’ Valse Triste. The third movement’s grotesqueries therefore seem like a continuation of what the second movement has to say, and it is only in the fourth movement, Urlicht, that there is some feeling of uneasy restfulness. Then comes the finale, in which the rumblings at the start seem to shake the musical foundations (and the foundations of Royal Festival Hall, where the performance was given). It is only gradually and through much struggle that the music wins through to eventual affirmation of life beyond death – ending with concluding measures so broad that they provide ample time for a feeling of exaltation to balance all the earlier despair. This is an extraordinary performance, worth owning even for the listener who already has multiple versions of Mahler’s “Resurrection.” It is the sort of recording to which one returns again and again for emotional inspiration.

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