January 02, 2014
(++++) OLD STYLE AND NEW
Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel. Sally Matthews, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; BBC Symphony Chorus (in No. 2); Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Philharmonia Voices and Tiffin Boys’ Choir (in No. 3). Signum Classics. $38.99 (5 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Bamberger Symphoniker-Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Manuela Uhl, Michaela Kaune and Marisol Montalvo, sopranos; Lioba Braun and Janina Baechle, altos; Stefan Vinke, tenor; Michael Nagy, baritone; Albert Dohmen, bass-baritone; Chor der Bamberger Symphoniker, Tschechischer Philharmonischer Chor Brünn, Windsbacher Knabenchor and Bamberger Symphoniker-Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).
Gustav Mahler’s music has been a central element of the repertoire for long enough now – some 50 years – so that distinct styles of performing it have emerged. The earliest well-known ones are those traceable to Bruno Walter, who knew Mahler personally and who tended to emphasize the emotional elements of Mahler’s music at the expense of its cragginess and careful structure; and Leonard Bernstein, who generally conducted Mahler at fever pitch and with a white-hot intensity that was highly effective even when it ran roughshod over the composer’s more delicate, chamber-music-like qualities. No conductor today follows the Walter or Bernstein approach strictly, but some lean more strongly toward what may be called an old-fashioned way of handling this music, while others find new things in it and tend to look in less-explored directions.
Lorin Maazel’s Philharmonia Orchestra readings of the first three symphonies on Signum Classics are very much of the old school. Recorded at live performances in April and May 2011, these are big, broad, frequently stately performances that give full vent to Mahler’s expansiveness and the gigantism of his concepts and the methods with which he brought them to fruition. The biggest of the three symphonies, No. 3, gets by far the best performance here: so large-scale, so all-encompassing and so beautifully calculated to show the contrasts among the movements and the gradual progress of the work from raw nature to universal love that it deserves to be called transcendent. Maazel gives the middle movements their full due, which is quite unusual in readings of this symphony: the Tempo di Minuetto and Scherzando become fully integrated parts of Mahler’s magnificent, sprawling conception. Too many conductors, old-school or no, focus on the huge first movement, the vocal fourth and fifth ones, and the gorgeous capstone of a finale, leaving the Tempo di Minuetto and Scherzando sounding a bit like way stations passed on route from something wonderful to something different but equally wonderful. Not so here: Maazel paints a very broad canvas throughout, with those middle movements being as crucial to the design as all the rest. There is something operatic in Maazel’s approach – part of its old-school nature – and the result is highly effective from start to finish.
The First and Second are equally well played but not interpreted at this lofty level. The issues in them speak to Maazel’s old-fashioned handling of the music: he tries to bring extra intensity to important transition points through tempo changes that are not in the score and that Mahler – a brilliant conductor as well as composer – would surely have included had he wanted them. Again and again, Maazel slows down before an important downbeat or emotional flashpoint, then plunges ahead with renewed vigor. He surely sees this approach as emphatic – there is no other rationale for it – but in fact it serves mainly to slow the forward momentum of the music at exactly the points at which it can least afford to be held back. The fourth movement of Symphony No. 1 and the first movement of No. 2, both of which can tend to meander, are particularly ill-served by this approach. There are many felicitous touches in Maazel’s readings of these symphonies: the contrasts and bizarreries of the third movement of No. 1 are especially well handled here, and the vocal movements of the “Resurrection” are beautifully sung and filled with feeling and a sense of wonder. But as in some other old-style performances of Mahler, these readings suffer from an attempt to put more into the music than is necessary for it to have maximum impact. Mahler knew just what he wanted and just how to get it – the very best performances use that fact as their starting point and extract from the music what is already in it, rather than trying to add anything.
And that brings us to Jonathan Nott’s handling of Symphonies Nos. 6 and 8. Nott is a new-style Mahler conductor, and his insights into these works are always fascinating and often genuinely revelatory. In the Sixth, Nott uses the march form, which pervades this symphony, as the key to unlock its mysteries and the strength of its communication. Like Maazel, he offers a very expansive reading – Tudor’s engineers manage to get the full 80½ minutes onto a single SACD, which is an impressive achievement – but unlike Maazel, Nott looks to the details of the symphony rather than its large scale to produce its effect. The huge first movement and even bigger finale, both of them essentially marches, stride forth decisively and never lose their forward momentum, even when the gorgeous second theme of the first movement appears or when the hammer blows of the finale resound shatteringly (Nott uses two of them, not three – as is more common nowadays than it used to be). One of Mahler’s salient characteristics is the continual emergence from a gigantic orchestra of brief solos – passages for individual instruments that help give his works their remarkable chamber-music-like feel. This is something to which Nott is particularly sensitive, for instance in this symphony’s Andante moderato (placed third; some conductors place it second, but it works better in third position by providing respite before the extremities of the finale). Nott also takes full advantage of the truly remarkable sensitivity of the Bamberger Symphoniker-Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie to this music: the orchestra plays with visceral understanding of Mahler’s sound world and rhythmic complexity – Maazel’s Philharmonia, although certainly a world-class orchestra, does not have the burnished tone and apparent ease of sectional balance that Nott’s ensemble possesses throughout. Nott takes full advantage of his orchestra’s superiority in this music to highlight numerous elegant touches in Mahler’s score, allowing inner voices to emerge from the ensemble and then subside with a feeling of natural ebb and flow that makes the “story arc” of Mahler’s Sixth seem supremely smooth as well as inevitable. This is a remarkably fine performance that is very much in the new style of conducting Mahler.
Nott’s Mahler Eighth is equally fine. The attention in this work is most often on the sheer size of the forces it requires – hence the “Symphony of a Thousand” designation, a neat appellation of which Mahler disapproved. In fact, it is the detail of the Eighth that is most remarkable, and Nott is fully aware of it: the booklets for his Sixth and Eighth even contain a short essay by him on both symphonies, in which it becomes obvious just how thoroughly he has thought through their approaches and forms of expression. The odd combination of the ninth-century hymn of the first part of the Eighth with the final scene from Goethe’s Faust as the second part makes analytical sense when the words are examined closely – but to make musical sense, the juxtaposition requires an approach as sensitive as Nott’s: he carefully brings forth the motifs from the first part that recur and are expanded in the second, thereby showing how the medieval religious fervor of the beginning is deepened and rendered substantially more complex by Goethe’s scarcely orthodox handling of analogous themes at the conclusion of his masterpiece. The mysticism and soaring beauty of the appeal to the eternal feminine in Goethe have as their counterpart the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the symphony’s first part, and it is particularly fascinating to realize that the assertive, masculine God at the center of Western religion is wholly absent from this entire symphony. What is going on here, although the language is that of orthodox organized religion, is something entirely different – and Nott’s performance allows the Eighth to expand into genuinely cosmic realms, the expressions of glory and ecstasy mounting higher and higher until, at the end, the symphony’s worlds-spanning (not merely world-spanning) grandeur emerges triumphant. Nott’s interpretation stays quite true to Mahler’s tempo and dynamic markings, not adding anything to the score that the composer did not put there, but it extracts from the score a great deal more than old-school conductors – more concerned with the overwhelming nature of this symphony than with the intricate details of its construction – generally bring forth. There is a clarity to Nott’s performance that stays with the listener long after the sheer size of this monumental work has been fully absorbed. Old-style Mahler conducting still has a great deal to recommend it, especially for listeners new to the composer’s works. But new-style performances such as Nott’s show why Mahler’s reputation and importance continue to grow after so many years and so many concerts and recordings: there is still much to be uncovered and discovered in these astonishing scores, and the best new-style conductors continue to find gems sparkling throughout them.