November 21, 2018
(++++) SECOND THOUGHTS
Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Anja Harteros, soprano; Bernarda Fink, alto; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $12.99.
Smetana: Die Moldau; Stravinsky: Five Movements from “Petrushka”; Khachaturian: Adagio from “Spartacus”; Prokofiev: Three Waltzes, Op. 96; Ravel: La Valse; Shostakovich: Waltz No. 2 from “Suite for Variety Orchestra.” François-Xavier Poizat, piano. Ars Produktion. $19.99 (SACD).
Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection,” is the first to show him producing the exceptionally grand scale in which all his later symphonies except the Fourth would be written. It is his first symphony with vocal elements and his first to attempt to explore in depth the meaning of his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism – a change necessitated by his career ambitions, but one that clearly resonated deeply with him on a spiritual level. But this symphony of firsts for Mahler was also a symphony of seconds, not only as his second work so designated but also as his second foray into the specific territory explored with such intensity in his First: the gigantic funeral march of the first movement of the “Resurrection” was, for Mahler, the laying to rest of the hero around whom the First was built. This was also Mahler’s second in-depth use of Wunderhorn songs in a symphonic context: among other things, the third movement of the “Resurrection” is an instrumental version of the rather cynical “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes.” A conductor aware of the firsts and seconds that are joined in this monumental work can produce a splendid performance if given the right singers and orchestra, and Mariss Jansons is quite clearly just such a conductor. This live recording – of a performance from 2011 that for some reason is only now being made available – is excellent in every way: dramatic, emotionally moving, and intense and thoroughly involving from start to finish. Jansons has what feels like an intuitive sense of pace for the entire work, although in reality it surely results from close study of the score: the many tempo changes flow with absolute naturalness, and the complex dynamics within the movements sound as if they could scarcely be played any other way. Bernarda Fink is a splendid alto soloist, bringing strong emotion as well as musicality to the fourth movement – although BR Klassik’s failure to include texts with the CD is an irritant, despite the ready availability of the words online. In the finale, most of which is not choral, Jansons manages to make the extended instrumental beginning a time of high drama and deep spiritual unease, after which the quiet choral entry has just the right touch of wonder and amazement to go with Klopstock’s words (which, again, are unfortunately not provided, but can be found online). Anja Harteros is as sensitive and involved in her solos as Fink is in hers, and the result is a thoroughly convincing and very meaningful performance in which the excellence of the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is all the more appreciated for being expected: these are simply some of the best musicians in the world. So overwhelming is the end of the symphony’s finale that it seems to look ahead directly to the conclusion of the even more gigantic Eighth, wherein Mahler uses even larger forces to study and celebrate life after death. Jansons’ “Resurrection” is a performance to treasure and is worth owning even for listeners who already have multiple versions of this symphony.
Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are not much earlier than Mahler’s first works in the form: Mahler’s First was first performed in 1889, four years before Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, and the “Resurrection” was first heard in 1895. But the scale of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies is far more modest and traditional than that of Mahler’s symphonic works; and in his earlier symphonies, Tchaikovsky was still finding his way from Russian nationalism to a kind of cosmopolitan composition to which he added wonderful elements of his country even as he stretched traditional symphonic bounds – in ways quite different from those that Mahler came to use. Tchaikovsky’s supremely tuneful First Symphony has some structural inelegances that also troubled the composer when he created his Second, known as the “Little Russian” because of its use of Ukrainian folk tunes at a time when Ukraine was often referred to as “Little Russia.” Tchaikovsky was sufficiently dissatisfied with his second symphonic effort – despite the fact that it was quite successful when first performed, in 1873 – to revise it considerably from 1879 to 1880, creating the version almost always heard today. Vladimir Jurowski leads an especially effective live performance (from 2016) of this symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, released on the orchestra’s own label. The symphony has several unusual elements that contrast with Tchaikovsky’s First. For one thing, despite its minor key (C minor), it is altogether brighter than the First (in G minor). Also, the Second lacks a slow movement: a rather sweet march that in some ways looks ahead to The Nutcracker takes its place. And the folk elements of the Second, which appear in all movements except the third, are pronounced and are handled with considerable aplomb. Jurowski paces the work very well, allowing its delicacies of orchestration to shine through and its abundance of lively tunes and strong rhythms to flower. The conclusion of the symphony is truly rousing, as evidenced by the audience’s justifiably enthusiastic reaction. The Second is paired on this release with Tchaikovsky’s Third, in a different live performance from 2016 (and, oddly, without any audience reaction at the end). The Third is Tchaikovsky’s only major-key symphony (D major) and his only one in five movements. It was written and first performed in 1875, between the two versions of the Second, and in some ways is a step back from the “Little Russian” – at least when compared to the Second’s later version. Parts of the Third do not quite coalesce: the very serious opening and the much lighter main section of the first movement, for example, and the rather foursquare fugue midway through the finale. And although the Third is called “Polish” for the Tempo di polacca marking of its finale, it does not particularly partake of any national character – even its “Russianness” is less than that of the first two symphonies. Nevertheless, in the hands of a sufficiently skilled and committed conductor, the Third is a pleasure to hear: it is the most balletic of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and in some ways the least inward-looking and least self-conscious. Jurowski clearly knows this: his performance flows beautifully and often sounds actually danceable, and while he allows some of the slightly overdone emotionalism of the central Andante elegiaco to come through, for the most part he keeps the excesses of the score reined in and, as a result, produces a performance in which the orchestra’s excellent playing is front-and-center and provides the music with clarity, form and considerable elegance.
Pianist François-Xavier Poizat’s second foray for Ars Produktion into piano arrangements of well-known orchestral works – the first came out in 2013 – offers some intriguing sound and excellent playing, even though not all the music comes across equally well on the piano. The first and last works on the SACD show this quite clearly. It opens with Smetana’s Die Moldau as arranged by Heinrich von Kàan-Albést, whose arrangements did a great deal to popularize the works of Smetana, Dvořák and other Czech Romantic composers. There is considerable virtuosity required throughout this piece, starting with hand-crossings at the very beginning, and there is undoubted excitement in the continuous rippling effects representing water in one hand while various themes are developed above and below them in the other. But the arrangement as a whole is on the pale side – a bit watered-down, one might say. In particular, when the river flows past the old castle of Vyšehrad near the end and then disappears beyond, the sense of grandeur of the orchestral version is missing; and the final bars, as Poizat plays them, feel rather rushed. On the other hand, the disc ends with a Shostakovich waltz from Suite for Variety Orchestra, arranged by Florian Noack, and this is a gem: light, lilting, tuneful, and altogether winning as an encore. The four works sandwiched between these two are a bit of a mixed bag stylistically and in terms of their arrangements. All receive first-rate, highly virtuosic treatment from Poizat, although the pieces’ stylistic distinctions are not always handled very sensitively: Poizat tends to play all the music in pretty much the same way, which works very well for some works and less so for others. Poizat seems most comfortable with the Russian and Russia-area pieces – not only the Shostakovich waltz but also the works by Stravinsky (arranged by Theodor Szántó), Khachaturian (arranged by Matthew Cameron), and Prokofiev. The rhythmic flow of all these pieces is well-handled, and Poizat shows in the Prokofiev, as in the Shostakovich, that he has a good feeling for three-quarter time. On the other hand, Ravel’s La Valse (arranged by Alexander Ghindin) comes across less well: this is not simply a waltz, even though Ravel saw it as a homage to the Strauss waltzes of the mid-19th century, and Poizat is not quite as sensitive as might be desired to Ravel’s impressionistic deviations from the strict dance form. Some of the shortcomings on the disc may be due to the arrangements rather than to the performer: certainly Poizat’s virtuosity leaves nothing to be desired. It may simply be the fact that these pieces are so well-known in orchestral guise that piano arrangements, even when skillfully done, fall a bit short. But if Poizat does not make a compelling case for hearing these works on the piano, he certainly does make one for his own considerable abilities at the keyboard.