January 11, 2018


Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Chen Reiss, soprano; Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano; Netherlands Radio Choir and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam conducted by Daniele Gatti. RCO Live. $21.99 (2 SACDs).

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6. Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $18.99.

Martinů: Symphonies (complete). ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cornelius Meister. Capriccio. $24.99 (3 CDs).

     Mahler made it quite clear that his “Resurrection” symphony, in addition to looking ahead at life beyond death, looked back at his own earlier work: the first movement is a reworking of what he originally planned as a tone poem called Totenfeier (actually originally misspelled “Todtenfeier”), which was supposed to picture the hero of his Symphony No. 1 being laid to rest. To emphasize the break between this movement’s topic and mood and those of the rest of the symphony, Mahler called for a pause of at least five minutes between the first two movements of the “Resurrection.” That is very rarely, if ever, done in concert performances. But some recordings make it comparatively easy, as does the new one featuring Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam on the orchestra’s own label, by putting the first movement by itself on one disc and the remaining ones on another. This turns the necessary two-disc arrangement of the lengthy symphony into a way of fulfilling the composer’s intention for it, provided that listeners actually spend five minutes after the first movement’s conclusion contemplating what they have just heard. Gatti provides plenty to think about: the typically splendid playing of the orchestra in this live recording is here at the service of an emotionally charged, strongly paced and well-organized interpretation that engages both through drama and through lyrical beauty. And then the character of the music really does change tremendously, as Mahler knew it would, to something so bucolic that the second movement seems to inhabit a world altogether different from the first. For Mahler, though, and for attentive listeners in general, these movements are really parts of the same world, one that Mahler contemplates in all its splendor and sorrow before turning to a finale whose thoughts – rewritten by the composer from Friedrich Klopstock’s ode, Die Auferstehung – are of the expectation of a world to come. The symphony actually moves from death to affirmation, despite its “Resurrection” title, because the concluding choral section (which begins very quietly, in a Mahlerian masterstroke) is more a generalized paean to the continuation of something human beyond death than it is a portrayal of any of the beliefs of the Catholicism to which Mahler had recently converted. Ultimately, this symphony is life-affirming, and that is how Gatti handles it: the funereal first movement, the pastoral but ultimately feckless second and third, the deeply sorrowful Nietzschean fourth, all give way – after the final movement begins with every bit as much intensity as the first one possesses – to brightness, positivity and peace. Soloists, chorus and orchestra all deliver beautifully in this reading, and the result is a work that looks ahead not only to humanity’s eventual fate but also, in retrospect, to the direction in which Mahler himself would take his next two symphonies.

     Tchaikovsky’s final symphony is not thought of as forward-looking at all – after all, the composer died nine days after the first performance, and indeed the Pathétique has for years been considered a kind of “suicide note,” especially since Tchaikovsky himself said it had a program that he chose not to reveal. But David Bernard insists that the usual view of this symphony is incorrect, and makes the case in a new Recursive Classics recording with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony that Tchaikovsky’s Sixth is the composer’s reconsideration of his earlier work and a look ahead toward new visions that he did not live to fulfill. Trying to put this approach across in performance is no easy task, made even more difficult by working with a nonprofessional orchestra. But this is not just any nonprofessional ensemble: it plays very much on a professional level, much as other top-notch nonprofessional groups do in other great music cities (such as the Kensington Symphony in London). The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is not as small as its name indicates – it is a midsized orchestra – and while not all its sections are equally smooth, it is mostly capable of giving Bernard what he asks for in this interesting interpretation. The orchestra’s sound is clean and rather cool, the opposite of what might be expected for Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, and the result is a performance in which the structural elements of the music are clearer than usual, unclotted by overweening emotion and expectation of trauma. The first movement is beautiful without sounding cloying, and the second flows with natural grace instead of being almost tripped up by its unusual 5/4 rhythm. The third is somewhat problematical: Bernard sets a very fast pace that the orchestra barely manages to hold, resulting in some less-than-perfect intonation and, at the movement’s very end, a touch of actual sloppiness; the horns have a particularly difficult time of it here. But the propulsiveness of the music makes it clear why Bernard sees this movement as Tchaikovsky’s look back at the pacing and approach of his earlier symphonic finales (especially that of the Fourth). As for the Sixth’s finale, here Bernard bends over backward to avoid having the music sound despairing – indeed, the gong to which other conductors give prominence for its doom-laden sound is distinctly downplayed here, as Bernard emphasizes the rhythmic vitality of the movement rather than the despondency that other conductors embrace. The result is that the final fading away of the music comes across as rather tepid emotionally, the future to which it looks ahead – if there is one – never being particularly clear. The overall interpretation is an unusual one that will likely be of most interest to listeners who have heard many more-mainstream approaches to the symphony and are ready to see it, as Bernard does, in a new light.

     Like Tchaikovsky, Bohuslav Martinů wrote six symphonies (Tchaikovsky actually started a seventh but did not complete it); but the time periods in which the composers worked were quite different, and Martinů had his own balance of looking back with looking ahead. As Brahms hesitated to create symphonies because he always looked back at Beethoven, so Martinů likely hesitated because of the work of his Czech countryman Dvořák. Indeed, Martinů (1890-1959) waited even longer to create a symphony than did Bruckner, a notorious late starter. It was not until World War II, when he was in his 50s, that Martinů began writing full-fledged symphonies – but once he started, he churned out five in a row, one per year from 1942 to 1946. They are thus all wartime or early postwar works, and all to some extent reflect the uncertainties and worries of the war years and concerns about what would come after the war’s end. The works are also all American, written during Martinů’s exile in the United States; but unlike Dvořák’s famous Symphony No. 9, Martinů’s are neither from nor of the New World. They are all identifiably and audibly Czech works, but written in a mid-20th-century musical idiom stamped with Martinů’s personality – and also possessed of such similarity of communicative tone that it can be hard to distinguish one from the next. This is true even though, analytically, the works are different from each other in many ways – for example, Nos. 1, 2 and 4 are in four movements while Nos. 3 and 5 are in three. But the movement count seems less significant than the fact that Martinů takes about the same amount of total time to make his points in all the works, each of which is about half an hour long except for No. 2, the most compact at 23 minutes. Martinů himself named Symphony No. 3 as his favorite, and listeners to the fine new Capriccio recording featuring the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cornelius Meister will likely agree: this symphony is denser, more sinewy and more tightly packed emotionally than the others. Those others also include Symphony No. 6, an outlier that dates to 1954 and is known as “Fantaisies symphoniques.” Despite the title, it mostly resembles the five earlier symphonies, being written in three movements lasting about 30 minutes – although there is a certain lightness and flow here that justify the work’s label. Meister explores each of the works thoroughly and knowledgeably, bringing out a kind of essential cragginess that periodically contrasts with lyricism and lightness. To the extent that Martinů looked back at earlier Czech symphonies and sought to move ahead past them, it can be said that he succeeded: all six of his symphonies are stamped with his own unmistakable style. But if he was looking in these works toward a future in which either the symphony or his own music would undergo further change, his vision faltered: as Meister’s performances show, Martinů’s symphonies explore the concerns of their time to considerable effect, but do not leave the impression of looking substantially beyond it.

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