July 13, 2017


Shostakovich: Complete Concertos (Piano, Violin, Cello). Lukas Geniušas and Dmitry Masleyev, piano; Sergey Dogadin and Pavel Milyukov, violin; Alexander Buzlov and Alexander Ramm, cello; Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Sladkovsky. Melodiya. $44.99 (3 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti. CSO Resound. $19.99.

     An ambitious and wonderfully conceived recording that fully repays the boldness of its approach, Melodiya’s release of the complete concertos of Shostakovich with the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Sladkovsky sheds new light on practically every movement of these works. The six young soloists are all recent International Tchaikovsky Competition winners, and unsurprisingly, each of them has technique to spare and a formidable grasp of the intricacies of this music. Somewhat more unexpectedly, each already has his own well-considered thoughts on the concerto he performs, viewing it not simply as a display piece but as a work whose structure and emotional underpinnings are worthy of exploration and require a specific form of emphasis and understanding. The soloists’ styles are by no means interchangeable – the contrast between the two cellists is particularly pronounced – and every performer shows why he has already attained major prizes and is at the start of what promises, in each case, to be a first-rate international career. Lukas Geniušas is particularly enamored of the sarcastic elements of Piano Concerto No. 1, delivering a fleet and strongly accented performance. Dmitry Masleyev makes Piano Concerto No. 2 good-humored without the snappishness of its predecessor, and fully explores the work’s lyrical elements. Sergey Dogadin blends his solo part carefully with the orchestral elements of Violin Concerto No. 1, putting virtuosity at the service of a generally balanced solo-ensemble sound. Pavel Milyukov accepts the density and gloom of Violin Concerto No. 2 and finds within the work a balance of forces that remains unresolved at the end. In Cello Concerto No. 1, Alexander Buzlov takes an approach akin to that of Geniušas in the first piano concerto, emphasizing the music’s ragged edges – but also allowing the finale to bloom in full expressiveness. Alexander Ramm takes a very different approach to Cello Concerto No. 2, making this work, which can easily seem overwhelmingly tragic, into a more-restrained display of emotional weariness whose effectiveness is abundantly clear at the music’s conclusion. Sladkovsky is a superb partner for all the soloists, working with each of them to produce orchestral sound and balance that fit each individual interpretation to excellent effect. And the orchestra is quite good, a touch ragged at times but for the most part assured and comfortable with the music, and with first-rate players handling soloistic elements of the concertos (in particular Dmitri Trubakov on trumpet in Piano Concerto No. 1). This is a remarkably fine release that thoroughly explores Shostakovich’s concerto output and sheds considerable new interpretative light on it.

     The new BIS recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä is the start of a planned complete-Mahler-symphony cycle. On the basis of this first reading, the cycle is likely to offer some insight into these now-standard-repertoire works, but may have quirks that will render it a (+++) endeavor – that being the rating for this particular recording. Vänskä’s reading gets off to a very strong start, the first and second movements (called Part I by Mahler) being rhythmically solid and emotionally intense, although the second movement backs off a little bit from the heightened potency of the first. But with Part II of the symphony – the third movement – things get a bit flabby: Michael Gast’s horn playing is fine, and the overall pace of the movement is good, but Vänskä makes the whole thing rather too episodic, and as a result the movement’s power and its ability to stand alone as a “Part” of the symphony are less than evident. And Part III of the work, consisting of the fourth and fifth movements, is a disappointment, for all of what is evidently its excellent intent. The lovely fourth movement, confusingly called “Adagietto” but then given the tempo indication Sehr langsam (“very slowly”), is taken practically as a Largo here: it is so slow as to be nearly soporific, the manifest beauties of its long lines largely lost as Vänskä focuses on bringing out minute details – which he does quite well – at the expense of the movement’s overall flow and structure. Mahler’s Fifth bears some resemblance to Beethoven’s – Mahler deliberately begins his with the famous rhythm that opens Beethoven’s Fifth – and the earlier symphony does have a well-known passage, at the end of its third movement, in which the orchestra almost seems to go to sleep as it is readied for the outburst of the finale. Perhaps Vänskä sees some parallel between what Beethoven did and what Mahler planned, but if so, the conductor takes it too far. And while Beethoven certainly wakes things up at the start of the finale of his Fifth, adding trombones and other instruments that have not appeared earlier, there is no such awakening in the finale of Vänskä’s Mahler Fifth. The jovial, even jubilant, forthright character of this rondo never gels: the finale starts a bit dully, as if shaking off the somnolence of the preceding movement, and while the proceedings are pleasant enough, there is no perkiness anywhere and no sense of triumphant assertion even in the chorale toward the end. This is a recording that starts well but goes steadily downhill as it progresses: nicely played, for sure, and sensitive to many of the nuances of Mahler’s lovely orchestration, but ultimately not structurally or emotionally convincing.

     Nor is Riccardo Muti’s version of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, on the orchestra’s own label, a fully convincing reading. Muti uses the traditional incomplete, three-movement version of the symphony – even though Bruckner quite clearly planned this as a four-movement work and completed the vast majority of the finale – and in the June 2016 concert from which this live recording is taken, Muti concluded the evening with the Te Deum, which Bruckner himself said could be used to complete the symphony. Thankfully, Muti does not take that suggestion here: the Te Deum is a poor fit structurally as well as musically with the three completed movements of the Ninth, and Bruckner was likely referring to its compatibility on a spiritual level rather than a musical one (the symphony is dedicated “to my dear God”). So Muti follows the tried-and-true tradition of regarding the three-movement Ninth as a complete work – a tradition deeply rooted at the Chicago Symphony, which gave the U.S. premières both of Bruckner’s Ninth (in 1904) and of the Te Deum (in 1892). The issues with Muti’s performance are more or less the opposite of those involving Vänskä’s reading of Mahler’s Fifth: Muti starts things out somewhat less impressively than he concludes them. The first movement is held in firm control and offers some particularly good playing from the brass – a longtime strength of this orchestra. But the passion, the mystery, the religious fervor of this movement are missing. This is a studied reading, a calculated one, powerful and sonically impressive but never as emotionally involving as the movement can be – until the final string phrases, which have an admirably gauged pleading quality. The weirdly flickering Scherzo gets similar treatment, but it fits this movement better, with vehemence bordering on malevolence in the main sections and a pleasantly whimsical handling of the trio that does not, however, completely escape a sense of underlying unease. It is only in the third movement that Muti really comes into his own here. The striving ever upward, the harshness of the sonic environment, the intensity of the full-orchestra outbursts, the strength of the climactic dissonance, the fragility of the very end – all these come through with a genuinely impressive level of power and involvement in which the winds are especially effective. As an inconclusive conclusion, this is a superior rendition of the movement, although the performance as a whole still gets a (+++) rating – which would have been higher if matters throughout were at the level they attain in the third movement. There are many fine readings of the truncated Bruckner Ninth available, and this is definitely one such. For Bruckner lovers, it is also worth paying some serious attention to recordings that include attempted completions of the finale, the recent one led by Gerd Schaller on Profil (using his own reconstruction of the finale) being particularly convincing. Fans of Muti and lovers of the very fine sound of the Chicago Symphony will not be disappointed in Muti’s Bruckner Ninth, which is impressive in many ways even though it does not stand head-and-shoulders above other very fine readings of the incomplete version of the composer’s final symphony.

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