September 10, 2015
(++++) PROBING MUSICAL DEPTHS
Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 7-9. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel. Signum Classics. $38.99 (6 CDs).
The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Programs 9 & 10; 11 & 12. Naxos DVDs. $19.99 each.
The last and best of the three Signum Classics releases featuring live recordings of Mahler symphonies conducted by Lorin Maazel stands as a genuine legacy to the conductor, who died in 2014 at age 84 after a remarkable 75 years of involvement in classical music. Known when he initially conducted as a preteen as “little Loren” – a nickname he came to despise as his reputation grew – Maazel became a towering figure in the music world, internationally acclaimed and respected for his performances of orchestral and operatic repertoire with a multitude of orchestras. His late-in-life (2009) founding of the Castleton Festival in Virginia is but one of the monuments to him. His Mahler cycle, using performances from 2011, is another, but it is only in this final release that Maazel’s abilities with this composer’s music significantly outweigh his interpretative limitations. At the heart of his success here is a gorgeously sung, splendidly played, interpretatively sure-handed Symphony No. 8, which emerges under Maazel’s leadership as essentially a full-scale, full-length opera (it runs 98 minutes). Maazel expertly brings out Mahler’s marvelous interweaving of the themes from the work’s first part with their reuse at different tempos and in different contexts in the second part. He makes the opening Veni, creator spiritus a strong, almost heavy half-hour, the initial words coming across as an invocation (not, as in some other, more-assertive performances, a demand); and the individual sections receive plenty of time to wend their way through the musical motifs that pervade the whole symphony. Then the extended orchestral opening to the final scene from Faust is presented as transformative, pulling together the heaven-imploring elements of the first part with the very different heavenly ones to come. Maazel does not shrink from having his singers approach the music operatically, especially Stefan Vinke as Doctor Marianus (the soul of Faust) and Ailish Tynan as Una Pœnitentium (the soul of Gretchen). The pacing here is deliberate almost but not quite to the point of ponderousness: Maazel lets the music swell again and again, enlarging the universe portrayed by Goethe and Mahler and thus expanding the experience of the audience, until the final chorus is truly overwhelming in its impact. This is a remarkable performance that fully explores the emotional heights and depths of the symphony.
Maazel’s reading of Mahler’s Ninth is also highly impressive in the first and final movements, but some of the weaknesses of this cycle show through in the middle. The first movement here is so well done that it seems to grow organically, from the thematic fragments with which it opens through the long-spun melodies and increasingly odd harmonies with which Mahler builds it. The pacing is quite slow – almost 36 minutes – but the music never drags. Instead, it feels as if it is coalescing bit by bit into something very big and very wonderful. As for the finale, most of it is comparatively straightforward, although very well played and very sensitively handled. But the very last part is amazing: it is a transcendent experience to hear the way the music evanesces here, evaporating in a mixture of resignation and acceptance as it returns, the same yet utterly changed, to the mood of the symphony’s beginning. This would have been a great performance if the two middle movements were at this level, but here Maazel’s limitations as a Mahlerian come into play. The bizarre, self-contradictory extremes of Mahler’s music seem to make Maazel uncomfortable: when it comes to showing the unifying elements of a work, as in the Eighth, he delivers splendidly, but when it is necessary to change the mood abruptly and with apparently illogic, as the middle of the Ninth does, he falls short. Neither of the middle movements here has the intensity and punch needed to provide relief from and a strong contrast to the opening and closing ones. The Rondo-Burleske in particular is a disappointment: one waits in vain for Maazel to cut loose, to let this frantic and frenetic piece blossom in its own distinctly peculiar way. It never happens. The two middle movements of this Ninth are simply too well-mannered to serve their purpose as interludes between the beauties of the work’s start and finish. As for the Seventh, it never really takes off at all. Here Maazel’s propensity for unification of these sprawling symphonies serves him (and listeners) poorly. This is a strange symphony, so much so that British musicologist Deryck Cooke famously christened it the “Mad,” and while that is an exaggeration, it captures some of the sense of unease and constant change, unending refusal to be pinned down to any one direction or mood, that pervades this work. Here Maazel’s reading does drag: the first movement seems to go on interminably, its sudden shifts of harmony and rhythm unduly smoothed by tempo choices that make the whole thing ponderous rather than portentous. The two Nachtmusik movements and the central (and decidedly peculiar) Schattenhaft scherzo seem to meander directionlessly: instead of being encapsulations of individual moods, they are for Maazel parts of a larger whole whose shape, unfortunately, is never clear. The finale, so similar to that of the Fifth while at the same time so different, so deliberately straightforward in its C major tonality and Allegro ordinario tempo designation, plods and struggles ahead here, lacking in exuberance, irony, conclusiveness, assertiveness, or any other emotion that it possesses in other conductors’ readings. It loses its way or, more accurately, never finds one – a statement that, unfortunately, applies to this performance as a whole. Nevertheless, for its superb Eighth and the many excellent elements of its Ninth, this is a release in which to rejoice, and a very fine monument, one of many, to one of the great conductors of modern times.
Although not an interpreter of Maazel’s stature, Gerard Schwarz also succeeds in exploring the intensity of musical communication in some of his performances – and the six volumes of his All-Star Orchestra TV series are, collectively, a particularly fine example. Using an orchestra whose members are drawn from the ranks of multiple U.S. ensembles – and who play efficiently, if not always passionately – Schwarz with these shows offers a modernized update of the famous Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts that ran from 1958 to 1972. There are, though, many differences. Commentary in the Schwarz series is by composers, performers and various experts rather than – as in Bernstein’s material – by the conductor himself. Unlike Bernstein, Schwarz offers programs designed for listeners of all ages, not just young people – and, more intriguingly, often mixes well-known works from the standard concert repertoire with new pieces that even people steeped in classical music may never have heard before. Bernstein’s programs reached across age lines by virtue of the strength of Bernstein’s personality and the excellence of his conducting. Schwarz is a lesser conductor and by no means a raconteur; his shows reach across generational lines because of the choice of music and form of commentary. The Schwarz shows are much better produced – they were done in HD with 19 cameras – although the extensive technical capabilities are not always fully utilized to explore elements of the music.
These are nevertheless excellent ways for people unfamiliar with classical music to learn about it in an enjoyable rather than strictly educational way. The Naxos DVD containing the ninth and 10th programs is a particularly good example of the series’ strengths. The ninth program, “Visions of New York,” includes a fine if not tremendously jazzy performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with pianist Lola Astanova; Copland’s Music for the Theatre; and a very recent piece that attempts to take a musical measure of New York after the terrorist murders of 9/11/2001, Ground “0” by Robert Beaser. The rhythmic and harmonic language of the three works may be different (although there are many similarities between the Gershwin and Copland pieces, which both date from the 1920s), but the differing ways in which they attempt to showcase life in the United States’ largest city results in some fascinating insights. The 10th program is a different matter. It is wholly devoted to a single work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, featuring violinist David Kim – and while it is commendable that Schwarz performs the complete symphonic suite (a real plus of this series: Bernstein’s offered only excerpts of works, sometimes taking things out of context to make a point), it is never quite clear why an entire program is being used to showcase this particular work. Part of the problem here is the performance itself: Kim plays the solo part well, but the overall sweep and grandeur of the music do not come through as well with this cobbled-together orchestra as they do with the Russian and other European ensembles whose richly burnished strings are so well complemented by brass sections at once warm and biting. Viewers who follow all the Schwarz programs may find, by the time of this 10th one, that they enjoy its exploration of a single extended work, but neither the performance nor the handling of the explanatory elements is as well-done as is the material in some of the other shows.
The 11th program has similar pluses and minuses. This one also features a single piece, Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, which is an even tougher nut to crack interpretatively than is Scheherazade. Again, the solo playing here is fine – Kim is again the violin soloist and Erik Ralske is featured on French horn – but the orchestra never really digs into this music. Strauss had an idiomatically personal approach to his orchestra music: this is the composer who later wrote Symphonia Domestica as a view of the next part of his family life. Ein Heldenleben, like Scheherazade, is a sonic spectacular requiring a large orchestra, and both works are certainly programmatic. But full comprehension of Strauss’ music requires considerable knowledge of his biography and his views, both musical and philosophical; and this is beyond the scope of Schwarz’ program, although certainly an attempt is made to explain what is going on. It nevertheless seems a trifle odd to build this entire episode around this piece. The 12th program comes across better, returning to the notion of juxtaposing a famous repertoire piece (Mozart’s Serenade No. 9, “Posthorn,” featuring David Bilger) with a contemporary one (Samuel Jones’ Violin Concerto, with Anne Akiko Meyers). In fact, this program attempts to do a great deal: the Jones work is a world première, Meyers plays it on the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesù violin, and the overall idea here is to explain the ways in which composer, soloist and conductor are all involved in bringing a work to the audience. This is an admirable and ambitious plan, but whether the pairing of these particular works furthers it is another matter. The Jones concerto is well-made, with interesting elements both for listeners and for the soloist, but it is difficult to see why it should be juxtaposed with Mozart – and this particular Mozart work contrasts rather oddly with this one by Jones, in any case. Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 or 5 would have made a more intriguing pairing; or perhaps, to avoid what would surely be something of an invidious comparison, a Mozart piano concerto (say, No. 9 or No. 15) could have been offered. This 12th program is worthwhile more for what it tries to do than for what it actually does; and indeed, that is often the case in The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. On balance, these are fine made-for-TV programs that will be of most value to people with some interest in classical music but little understanding of it – although the issues raised in certain shows will resonate with longtime classical-music lovers as well.