April 28, 2016


Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. BR Klassik. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano; Women of the Dallas Symphony Chorus, Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, and Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. DSO Live. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Die Taschenphilharmonie conducted by Peter Stangel. Edition Taschenphilharmonie. $18.99.

Elgar: Sea Pictures; Polonia; Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos. 1-5. Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Hallé conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Hallé. $18.99.

Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60. Tzimon Barto, piano; Jaques Mayencourt, viola; Christiane Palmen, flute. Capriccio. $16.99.

     Gustav Mahler died at age 50: his dates are 1860-1911, but he never reached his 51st birthday. However, he is rarely thought of as being in the pantheon of great composers who died young, along the lines of Schubert (31), Mozart (35) and Weber (39). One likely reason for this is that Mahler was scarcely prolific; another is likely the fact that his life was as tied up with performing music as with creating it. Indeed, Mahler was considered a conductor rather than composer by many contemporaries, and his compositions for a time were deemed highly derivative in every way except perhaps for their considerable length and Mahler’s tremendous skill in orchestration. Since Mahler’s music entered the standard repertoire half a century ago and began to be played so often that it is overplayed at times – that is, undertaken by performers who are really not up to it – Mahler’s role as anything other than a composer has faded. But in reality, his influence was profound in everything he did, and remains so.

     In terms of his compositions, Mahler’s symphonies have become test cases of a sort for conductors, challenging to conduct and filled with so much material and so much emotion that each interpretation becomes a kind of psychological profile of the conductor leading it. The new Yannick Nézet-Séguin performance of Symphony No. 1 on the BR Klassik label, for instance, shows the conductor to be somewhat headstrong, a bit impatient, at times beautifully focused on detail and at others inclined toward broadly sweeping gestures. This is a rather fast-paced reading, the walk in the country of the first movement being on the brisk side and the finale, which tends to meander, being pushed to get on with it. But thanks to the excellent playing of Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, this Mahler First simply sounds wonderful, with depth and clarity intermingled and with its warmth and gigantism contrasted neatly with the sort of careful detail that Mahler engaged in especially when wanting to make a wryly humorous point (as, here, in the delightfully bumptious third movement). This is a live recording – they are popular in Mahler releases these days – and it has the sort of crackling energy that helps make up for a certain superficiality in the handling of the music. Nézet-Séguin is not a great Mahler conductor by any means, but this release shows how much potential he has for future development.

     The Mahler Third from Dallas, led by Jaap van Zweden and released on the Dallas Symphony’s own label, is also a live performance, and van Zweden shows a firmer grasp of Mahler’s depth and complexity than Nézet-Séguin does – although it helps to remember that Symphony No. 1 can handle impetuosity better than can Symphony No. 3. Van Zweden’s reading starts as if it is going to be a superb one, with amazingly good brass in the first movement and a great sense of forward motion throughout the gigantic, sprawling march through which nature awakens and the world seems to bloom. This reading is outstanding by any measure. The gentleness of the second movement makes a wonderful contrast, and the deliberately overdone naïveté of the third comes through here as utterly charming and as un-ironic as Mahler has ever been. These first three movements are lovely, both individually and as a set. The rest of the symphony, though, falls a bit short. The fourth movement calls for a contralto solo, but some mezzo-sopranos handle it quite well if they can get to the lower depths of their range and still project with clarity. Kelley O’Connor is all right, but her voice is not very well suited to this vocal range, and she tends to sound rather forced just when her delivery is most emphatic and emotionally telling. The happy brightness of the fifth movement comes through nicely – it is difficult not to make this movement a joy to hear – but where van Zweden does fall short is in the finale. So much has come before this movement, so much has built to it, that it is crucial to make it the capstone of the symphony, an almost unbearably intense communion with God as Love. The movement is very, very difficult to shape when taken as slowly as it should be for maximum effect, with the result that many conductors – van Zweden clearly included – tend to rush it. That makes it easier to listen to, especially when it is played as well as it is here (the orchestra’s brass section really is remarkable throughout the performance); but a faster pace misses the build-up to an emotional peroration that, ideally, should leave the audience breathless and awestruck. Here the finale sounds like something that the orchestra just has to get through – it is entirely too matter-of-fact, to the point that the final full minute of an emphatic D major sounds overdone rather than glorious. Clearly the audience was not moved to awe or amazement: the applause starts even before the final notes have echoed away, and it is gratingly intrusive and far too loud (although it thankfully does not go on very long on the CD). Van Zweden has some excellent ideas about Mahler’s Third, but this particular performance does not show him conducting the work as a convincing whole.

     The most successful new Mahler release considered here is a strange one of his strangest symphony, the Seventh. It is a chamber-music version – really! – performed by the wonderfully named Taschenphilharmonie (“Pocket Philharmonic”) and released on the orchestra’s own label. The concept here, a Mahler Seventh played by a total of 19 musicians, is not as quixotic as it might seem: it is based on Arnold Schoenberg’s famous “private musical performances” concerts of a century ago, during which those interested in new and often controversial music would gather to hear it played by chamber ensembles. Some Mahler was actually performed that way at the time, but of course the notion of doing the Seventh with exactly two violins, two violas, one cello and one bass seems almost insultingly absurd. Yet it is not. This is a thoroughly convincing and simply wonderful reading of the Seventh, and one that showcases Mahler’s structural skills and instrumental balancing far better than do most full-orchestra versions of the symphony. Peter Stangel keeps the music flowing at just the right pace throughout, so the contrasts among the movements appear with greater clarity than usual, and while of course the grand climaxes lack the sheer heft that Mahler wanted them to receive, what this reading shows is just how little massed-orchestra climactic material the symphony actually contains. This arrangement works because Mahler, for all his demands for large orchestras, treated the ensembles like gigantic chamber groups: he needed many instruments so he could fine-tune the sound of particular movements or sections of movements, so he could contrast unison strings with divisi, so he could  introduce instruments for only one movement or only part of one (in the grand tradition of the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth). Mahler barely touched the chamber-music realm in his compositional life, but he made use of chamber-music sensibilities in every one of his symphonies, and did so to particular effect in the Seventh. The parallels and differences between the two Nachtmusik movements come wonderfully clear in the Taschenphilharmonie’s hands, and the way in which every movement relates to all the others is abundantly, even astonishingly clear here. The problematic finale, which so often gives conductors as many difficulties as does the conclusion of the Fifth, here comes into sharp focus and proves – indeed, like the Fifth’s ending – to be just the right way to bring openness and sunniness to a night that has been very dark indeed. This is a must-have CD for Mahler lovers – although anyone not familiar with the Seventh would do better to avoid it until that familiarity has grown.

     Like Schoenberg, Mahler was a major advocate of new music, helping advance the cause of a post-tonal world in his own way while giving contemporary composers precious and difficult-to-come-by access to audiences. For example, as conductor, Mahler programmed the first four of Elgar’s five Sea Pictures in New York in 1910, thus uniting his own inclination toward composition of orchestral songs with Elgar’s. Sea Pictures was not new when Mahler programmed it – Elgar’s work dates to 1899 – but certainly Mahler’s decision to perform it helped boost its presence and laid the groundwork for many future performances by others. As a song cycle, Sea Pictures has worn quite well even though (unlike Mahler’s own Wunderhorn-based cycles) it has, in several cases, inferior lyrics. The new Hallé recording on the orchestra’s own label is an especially fine one, with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote singing the words feelingly and with fine expression, giving special heft and emotion to The Swimmer (the final song, and the one not programmed by Mahler in 1910). Coote’s success despite this song’s inferior verbiage is particularly impressive. The best of the five pieces here is Sabbath Morning, thanks to the fine melding of Elgar’s music with the lovely poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; almost as attractive are In Haven (with words by Alice Elgar) and the always-popular Where Corals Lie (whose poetry, by Richard Garnett, is something of a mixed blessing). The only slight disappointment here is Sea Slumber Song, the first of the five, wherein Roden Noel’s mundane words seem to have inspired neither Coote nor Elder. As a whole, though, this is a very effective presentation of the song cycle. Elder also offers a rousing rendition of the infrequently heard Polonia – which, like Wagner’s somewhat analogous Polonia Overture, tends to be dismissed as merely a strung-together set of Polish patriotic tunes. Elgar’s work has more subtlety to it than that, and Elder conducts it in that spirit and with considerable verve as well. Elder also does a top-of-the-line reading of the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, refusing to look at them as empty celebrations of empire and instead seeking out and finding their purely musical qualities and their touches of structural elegance. The less-known Nos. 2 and 3, and the somewhat-lighter-than-the-others No. 5, fare particularly well here. The ever-popular Nos. 1 and 4 are fine, but in their cases it is more difficult to accept Elder’s brisk tempos (especially in the Trio sections). As a set, though, these marches are a gem, as indeed this whole CD will be for lovers of Elgar’s music.

     Mahler was so forward-looking musically that he even intended to introduce audiences to Charles Ives – and the fact that he did not live to do so creates one of those “what if” moments in classical music that pose unanswerable (or, as one should say in a discussion of Ives, unanswered) questions. Mahler planned to offer Ives’ Symphony No. 3 in 1911, but died before he could conduct the work. It was, of course, only many years later that audiences finally started to discover and marvel at Ives’ music, which would surely have gained acceptance sooner had Mahler lived to promote it. Mahler did not know Ives’ Concord Sonata, which the composer started working on in earnest only in the year of Mahler’s death and did not finish until 1915. But surely Mahler would have been intrigued both by the work’s prodigious length (nearly an hour); its blend of programmatic and impressionistic elements (which is not that different from Mahler’s own program-music-that-is-not-program-music); and its straining of the bounds of the piano-sonata form by including optional parts for viola and flute, plus one place where the pianist is required to use a piece of wood to press down on 14¾ inches of keys all at once. Describing the elements of this sonata makes it sound quirky, but the music itself does not sound that way at all, or at least no more so than Ives typically does. Certainly the sonata is quite modern harmonically and rhythmically, and certainly the four movement titles’ references to Transcendentalists give only the barest hint of what impressions and feelings the notes themselves provide. But the work remains structurally true to an expanded plasticity of sonata form, and the movements’ parallels (such as the famous inclusion of the “Fate” motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in all of them) work with their pronounced differences to create a sense of expansive exploration that, by the end, is thoroughly satisfying if the performance has been a good one. The Capriccio recording by Tzimon Barto is a very good one indeed: Barto has more than enough pianistic technique to handle Ives’ considerable complexity, along with a wide enough range of emotion to handle the highly serious, dense sections of the work, of which there are many, while also allowing Ives’ humor to peek through and, very occasionally, burst forth untrammeled. Barto’s reading does include the optional viola and flute parts, both of which are very brief but both of which fit the music exceptionally well and lend it a reach even beyond the considerable one of the piano. What Mahler would have made of this sonata will never be known; what Ives could have made of his part-time career as a composer, had Mahler lived long enough to become an advocate of his music, is also unknowable. But given Mahler’s power, both as a composer and on the podium, it is safe to say that acceptance of and interest in Ives would have developed in a very different way had Mahler been able to be involved.

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