Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. “0” and 1. Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Mario Venzago. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 10—Adagio. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, contralto; Ladies of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir; Liverpool Youth Philharmonic Choir; Royal Liverpool Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz (No. 3); Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz (No. 10). Artek. $24.99 (2 CDs).
The devil may be in the details, as the cliché has it, but there can be something angelic there, too. Mario Venzago switches orchestras but not his unusual approach to Bruckner for the second entry in his cycle of the composer’s symphonies. After performing Nos. 4 and 7 with the Sinfonieorchester Basel, he turns for Nos. “0” and 1 to the very modest forces of the Tapiola Sinfonietta. And before exclaiming that an orchestra with only nine first violins cannot possibly do justice to Bruckner’s monumental vision, listeners should understand that the transparency of texture and comparative lightness of orchestration are exactly what Venzago wants for these early Bruckner symphonies – and that the use of the small ensemble permits highly effective implementation of Venzago’s very personal view of these symphonies. Venzago returns to the symphonic size and performance practices of Bruckner’s own time, in particular the decade of the 1860s, to which both these works date. Although Bruckner is almost always deemed a “heavy” composer and given performances that can be monumental but may also be muddy (a fate that tends to befall Brahms as well), what Venzago has done is note that the orchestras of Bruckner’s time, for which he wrote his symphonies, were lighter-weight than those of later times, with a significantly smaller string complement; thus, Bruckner can be conducted, in informed period-practice style (although without the use of authentic 19th-century instruments), in a lighter, more buoyant vein than usual. And that is exactly what Venzago does here. The D minor symphony known as No. “0” (given that designation by the composer himself) is not actually Bruckner’s first work in the form – there is an earlier one in F minor that has survived but is very rarely heard (and when it is, is called No. “00”). But although Bruckner himself wanted the No. 1 attached to the C minor symphony on which he worked at about the same time as No. “0,” he did not suppress the D minor, as he did the F minor. So Venzago interprets the Bruckner cycle as starting with No. “0.” Interestingly, both the symphonies heard here are almost of identical length (about 44 minutes each), and both have exactly the same designations for their four movements: Allegro, Andante, Scherzo and Finale. But as conducted by Venzago, they emerge from different worlds. No. “0,” heard in its modified 1869 version because the 1864 original no longer exists, is Schubertian to a considerable degree; indeed, Bruckner’s opening parallels that of Schubert’s “Unfinished,” which had only been found and first performed in 1865. Frequently songlike and syncopated, occasionally even paying homage to Rossini, No. “0” features some highly virtuosic writing for strings that comes through especially clearly thanks to Venzago’s use of a small ensemble. Symphony No. 1, in contrast, sounds more like Schumann than Schubert, and the version heard here, from 1866, is actually earlier than the version of No. “0” that Venzago offers (there is a later and significantly heavier version of No. 1, dating to 1890-91). No. 1 is harsher and more determined than No. “0” and is considerably more serious in tone. Its outbursts of anger and violence come with effective contrasts: the march rhythm of the first movement compared with the fervent second, for example. The nearly wild vitality of the finale is most communicative at a fast tempo but with tremendous instrumental clarity – and here again, Venzago’s choice of the Tapiola Sinfonietta proves a wise one. Venzago is calling this cycle “A Different Bruckner,” envisioning it as a followup to his previously release, “A Different Schumann.” And the designation is not simply verbiage: this really is Bruckner performed with unusual forces and an unusual viewpoint, yet with authoritative style and a very clear and earnest attempt to bring forth elements of the composer’s symphonies that are heard infrequently, if at all.
Gerard Schwarz’s Mahler Third has some uncommon elements, too, although not in orchestral size or because of any attempt at “period” interpretation. What Schwarz does here is turn this gigantic symphony, Mahler’s most world-spanning work, into an accumulation of small delicacies. The huge first movement does not stride forth as intensely as in other performances, but once established, it proceeds in episodic but well-paced sections that make it sound like a series of miniature tone poems. Quiet segments flirt with inaudibility – quite an achievement for a live recording (made in 2002) – while louder ones almost blast forth. But what is most impressive is the artful use of solos, including violin and timpani in the first movement: these more than compensate for an occasional misstep, such as the too-fast tempo at the movement’s very end. Small and elegant touches continue to abound throughout the symphony. The flutes enhance the gentle flow of the second movement, while the posthorn and trumpet are played with great style in the third. Both these movements are a touch on the quick side (Mahler specifically designated the third to be played Ohne Hast), but the beauties of individual instruments, and indeed the very fine playing of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as a whole, are what leave the greatest impression. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is highly expressive in the fourth movement, although her voice is a rather light contralto; and the women’s and children’s choruses produce bright and lively sound in the fifth movement, although Schwarz emphasizes the darker central section to a somewhat greater extent than usual. It would, however, have been nice to have the movements’ texts included with the recording. The finale, which again is a touch fast, flows beautifully and builds naturally to a gorgeously played climax that sounds simply wonderful even if it does not quite attain the emotional depth associated with the very best performances of this music. Taken as a whole, this is Schwarz’s finest Mahler performance on Artek: he is not known as a particularly adept Mahler conductor, but the Third clearly speaks to him, and through him to listeners. Also included here is a 2009 performance with the Seattle Symphony of the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, and this too is nicely done, although more ordinary in its effect than the Third and not played by the orchestra with quite as much intensity or devotion as the Liverpool musicians provide. This release as a whole, though, is a notable one that sheds light on the beauties of Mahler in some ways that other recordings of the Third do not.