December 20, 2012
(++++) LIVE AND LITHE
Elgar: Cello Concerto; Sospiri; Salut d’amour; La capricieuse; Dvořák: Waldesruh’; Rondo for cello and orchestra; Respighi: Adagio con variazoni. Sol Gabetta, cello; Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mario Venzago. RCA. $14.98.
Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Jennifer Check, Rebecca Nash and Jennifer Welch-Babidge, sopranos; Ann McMahon Quintero and Robynne Redman, mezzo-sopranos; Gregory Carroll, tenor; Lester Lynch, baritone; Jason Grant, bass-baritone; Christopher Newport University Chamber Choir, Old Dominion University Concert Choir, Richmond Symphony Chorus, Virginia Children’s Chorus, and Virginia Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Hampton Roads Classics. $17.
There is dynamism in live performances that more than makes up for sonic imperfections (based on where one sits in a concert hall), disturbances (other audience members moving or coughing), and inconvenience (frequently high ticket cost, plus the cost of getting to and from the performance, sometimes in inclement weather and/or in severe traffic or aboard crowded mass transit). And the dynamism is captured in the best recordings of these performances, which have the added advantage that the CDs can be assembled from works performed over several days – or pieced together from several renditions of the same work. At their best, live recordings (a contradiction in terms, like “dark brightness”) can be as good as Sol Gabetta’s of the Elgar Cello Concerto from 2009 (November 9-12, to be specific). Gabetta is an absolutely marvelous cellist, seeming to be so joined to her instrument that there is little sense she is playing it at all – the cello seems to be making the music, which flows to the audience through Gabetta’s fingers and body. The fact that she plays a Guadagnini cello from 1759 is certainly a part of the gorgeousness of her music-making, but there is more to it than that: her bowing, her phrasing, her musical understanding, her involvement in what she plays are quite extraordinary, and the realization that she made this recording at the age of 28 is truly astonishing – although it is worth remembering that Jacqueline du Pré, with whom the Elgar concerto has been strongly identified for nearly 50 years, made her classic recording when she was only 20. Gabetta’s reading of the concerto is extremely lyrical and intimate, although with plenty of power where it is called for. There is an almost loving conjunction between the cello lines and the orchestral part – Mario Venzago does an outstanding job leading the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in a supple, unobtrusive and highly supportive accompaniment. Gabetta’s flowing warmth and intensity give this work an emotive lyricism even beyond what other fine performers have found in it, yet her attacks have plenty of bite when necessary and she produces a big, warm, glowing sound almost continuously and apparently effortlessly. It is an altogether winning performance on every level. But there is a disappointing side to this very fine RCA disc: nearly everything else on it is of much lighter weight, like a long series of encores. The three additional Elgar works here are essentially salon music, although Gabetta plays them very beautifully. The two by Dvořák are slightly more substantial, with the melancholy elements of the Rondo for cello and orchestra particularly well handled; but, again, these are scarcely “big” works. Only the Respighi, a very interesting set of variations with some highly skillful orchestration, has enough heft to complement the Elgar concerto effectively. The original 2010 issue of this performance was a two-CD set that also included Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ 1978 Grāmata čellam for solo cello; the present single-disc release stays more firmly in the Romantic and post-Romantic sound world, but at the expense of providing any additional depth approximating that of Gabetta’s lovely Elgar concerto.
There is depth aplenty in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony as performed by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta in a recording made on May 27, 2012, at the Virginia Arts Festival. This is in many respects quite an amazing performance, in which Falletta finds the recurrent thematic lines from the symphony’s first part whenever they reappear in the second, producing greater unity than many other conductors do in this work; and in which the Virginia Children’s Chorus stands out as an exceptionally fine group amid the many other professional and amateur choruses enlisted for this huge symphony. The very opening of performances of Mahler’s Eighth tends to set the tone for all that comes later: Veni, creator spiritus can be sung either plaintively, asking the creator spirit to descend and inspire all that comes later, or demandingly, insisting that this creative force appear. Falletta, interestingly, takes a middle ground: the chorus is clearly asking rather than demanding, but it is a request that is expected to be honored. This leads into a Part I whose sections follow each other clearly and with even flow, with solo instruments’ lines peeking out from the overall texture intermittently to fine effect. The orchestral introduction to Part II is less portentous than in some other performances, less fraught with the Mahler angst that appears only in this section of this particular work. Falletta’s approach is far from lightweight, but it does not suggest high drama, much less tragedy. The vocal sections of Part II continue in the same involved but not overdone vein: the singing is generally excellent (although bass-baritone Jason Grant is a bit strained in his lowest register), the choral parts are particularly well handled, and the three sopranos’ distinctive voices lend their characters some differentiation. It would have been nice if the CD’s booklet said which singer filled what role, but in fact the booklet is the weakest part of Hampton Roads Classics’ offering: 4½ of the 10 inside pages simply list all the orchestral and choral performers, with another 2½ pages devoted to solo singers’ biographies. There is nothing about Mahler, nothing about the symphony, and the sung words are neither given nor offered via a Web site. Since this is by far Mahler’s most text-heavy numbered symphony and one whose words are absolutely crucial to the composer’s communication, this omission is a very poor decision indeed, and the booklet as a whole gives the production an amateurish feel that is less than the performance deserves. Falletta is scarcely a Mahler specialist, but she shows in this recording that she can scale the heights to which this composer invites performers and audiences alike, and can take listeners along with her – both in the concert hall and at home.