June 12, 2014


Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 39-41. Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century conducted by Frans Brüggen. Glossa. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 4-6. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel; Sarah Fox, soprano (No. 4). Signum Classics. $38.99 (4 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

     Couple the inherent enthusiasm of live performances with the very high quality with which it is now possible to record concerts and you have a recipe for some excellent music-making that has a certain level of audience involvement beyond what any studio recording can offer. Thankfully, audiences worldwide have become much better in recent years – in most cases – in remaining silent as concerts are recorded, so home listeners generally get the benefits of live performance without the coughs, sneezes, rustlings and general background irritation often present in the concert hall. (And recording producers’ much-improved ability to edit out those extraneous sounds certainly helps!) Thus, the Glossa release of Mozart’s last three symphonies, featuring live performances from 2010 by the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century under Frans Brüggen, is a highly involving recording of this thrice-familiar music. Brüggen chooses tempos judiciously; the orchestra of about three dozen players is light and transparent most of the time but full and rich – within appropriate 18th-century, pre-Romantic bounds – when called for; and the sectional balance is excellent. Brüggen makes a few unusual, even questionable decisions, notably the very quiet endings of No. 39 and of the third movement of No. 41. But for the most part, his readings combine careful studiousness with plenty of verve and spirit, being especially strong in the way they highlight Mozart’s wonderful balance among instruments – high and low strings, strings and woodwinds, and so forth. Brüggen’s approach to No. 40 is particularly interesting for the way it thoroughly explores the work’s minor-key emphasis while avoiding the intense emotionalism that some conductors bring to (or extract from) this symphony. The result is a performance that is on the cool side – which is likely closer to what Mozart would have intended than are other, somewhat overheated versions. The recording, made in Rotterdam, is very fine, providing a real sense of being in the concert hall where these performances took place. Anyone interested in first-rate period-instrument renditions of Mozart’s final symphonies will be more than satisfied with this two-CD set.

     Satisfaction is somewhat harder to come by in the April and May 2011 recordings of Philharmonia Orchestra performances of Mahler’s Symphonies Nos. 4-6 as interpreted by Lorin Maazel. Maazel’s Mahler cycle at London’s Royal Festival Hall was widely praised in its time, but these very broad, deliberately paced and sometimes rather muddy readings are less satisfactory when heard at home than they apparently were during the concerts themselves. Maazel takes a very expansive view of these works. His No. 4 is one of the longest, if not the absolute longest, currently available: usually running 52 to 55 minutes or so, the symphony runs 61 here – and feels like it. There is considerable beauty in Maazel’s reading, as when he dwells lovingly on the extended string theme in the first movement and proves highly attentive to details such as pizzicati and timpani strokes in the second. The third movement, though, meanders so much that it seems to lose its way – although the “gates of heaven” climax is excellent. The finale, unfortunately, is not a very effective capstone: Sarah Fox’s voice sounds too mature, her delivery is too operatically expressive, and the final verse of Das himmlische Leben practically stalls instead of seeming transcendent. Maazel’s No. 5 runs 76 minutes – this symphony usually lasts about 70 to 72 – but what matters here is less the pacing than the conductor’s handling of the individual movements. The first, in particular, limps instead of marching, while the second opens strongly and dramatically but soon bogs down. The other three movements are better: the third, which is well paced, is broad but not too slow, with fine horn playing and effective timpani; the fourth starts very quietly indeed and is beautifully expressive throughout; and the fifth builds well to its climax, with fine playing from all sections. In Symphony No. 6, the length is a truly extraordinary 89 minutes, and again, what matters is not the inherent pacing but the way Maazel chooses to use the time. The first movement’s march is somewhat flaccid, and Maazel swoons rather too intensely when the lovely second theme appears – and by about 15 minutes into this 26-minute opening, the music has achieved stasis that Maazel apparently wants but that Mahler surely did not. Maazel takes the scherzo second – the order of the middle movements of this symphony remains a matter of dispute, with Mahler himself never having quite made up his mind – and here matters start strongly but soon slow to a point where the forward momentum practically stops. The third and fourth movements, however, are first-rate. The Andante is warm, expressive and involving from start to finish. And the huge finale builds well, with Maazel contrasting its sections effectively while still maintaining an overall sense of the movement’s scale and shape – something that was lacking in the first movement. In all, this set of three Mahler symphonies gets a (+++) rating: there are excellent elements here, but also a number of missteps that could easily be overlooked in the emotional atmosphere of a live concert but that inhibit the enjoyment and emotional connection of the music at home.

     Maazel’s handling of Mahler’s Sixth contrasts sharply with the (++++) one from Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln in a live recording from 2013. It is not just that Stenz’s version is speedier, coming in at less than 82 minutes. Stenz seems to have thought through the symphony’s proportions and overall argument in a way that Maazel also must have but that comes through far more clearly in the very high-quality Oehms SACDs than in the Signum Classics discs (whose sound is adequate but not exceptional). Stenz launches the first movement strongly and maintains its march character throughout its faster sections, allowing the slow ones plenty of breathing room but handling them more as interludes within the march than as competitors with it. Stenz places the Andante second rather than third, a less musically satisfactory although entirely justifiable decision, and he keeps the movement sweet and lovely throughout, its flow strongly contrasted with that of the symphony’s jagged opening. Placing the Scherzo third allows a fine contrast among the first three movements, and Stenz’s Scherzo is very well played throughout, with especially good percussion. Having the Scherzo and finale back-to-back, though, is somewhat awkward, given the intensity of the last movement. Still, Stenz does a top-notch job with the symphony’s conclusion, offering strong and even pacing, a propulsive sense of inevitability interrupted by the famous hammer blows, and particularly outstanding brass playing. There is a cohesiveness to Stenz’s Mahler Sixth that is missing in Maazel’s, and not just because of the different tempos chosen by the two conductors. Stenz, whose Mahler cycle for Oehms now includes all the composer’s completed symphonies except No. 9, finds a unitary message in the Sixth that either eludes Maazel or that Maazel deems less important than the individual elements of the work. The Stenz approach, on balance, is the more involving and emotionally compelling of the two.

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