August 03, 2006


Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony. Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. LPO. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Klaus Tennstedt conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra; Thomas Hampson, baritone. LPO. $16.99.

     Written only three years apart – in 1885 and 1888, respectively – Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 are bookends of a sort for symphonic development in the 19th century.  Tchaikovsky’s work, unnumbered but written between his Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, is his longest symphony, running nearly an hour, and its focus is the Byronic hero created in the early years of the century.  Mahler’s work, as massive as it is, is his shortest symphony (most performances are a few minutes shorter than most performances of his Symphony No. 4); and, for all its Romantic imaginings, it looks past the 19th century toward the 20th.

     Both these works are here offered in live performances by the London Philharmonic, on the orchestra’s own label.  Vladimir Jurowski conducted this Manfred in 2004.  He handles the work with appropriate seriousness and manages to keep the huge orchestra – Tchaikovsky’s largest – well balanced and together.  The special orchestral elements – organ, Chinese gong, harp, tambourine and others – lend the symphony an exotic air, and Jurowski plays that up to good effect.  His tempos are mostly well chosen, though the third movement – which, as in Mahler’s symphony, is the slow one – drags a bit.  Jurowski lets the work be episodic at times, with the result that the Trio of the second movement, taken out of context, sounds a bit like something by Rimsky-Korsakov.  But Jurowski also keeps the symphony firmly under control, so that the recurrent themes representing Manfred and his beloved, Astarte, clearly fit the overall structure.  It is an impressive reading, marred only by sound that is on the thin side.

     The sound is thin in the Mahler CD, too, and the disk repeatedly gives the symphony’s date as 1899 (which was the date of publication, not composition) – and the date of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, on which much of the symphony was based, as 1897 (also a publication rather than composition date).  The song cycle was recorded in 1991, the symphony back in 1985 – this is an analog recording.  The audience here is a touch on the noisy side, too.

     Aside from these presentation issues, the Klaus Tennstedt performance has much to recommend it, though it is not quite in the first tier of readings of this work.  Tennstedt recorded Mahler’s First five times, three of them with the London Philharmonic.  This rendition is a little short on depth of emotion and sense of mystery, though Tennstedt does an excellent job of highlighting various instrumental details.  Tempi are odd, though: the first movement is taken quickly, then sped up so much at the end that the orchestra can barely keep up; and there is lots of rubato in the third movement.  Variations from the composer’s markings are particularly unjustified in the works of Mahler, who was an outstanding conductor and marked his scores carefully to show just what he wanted.

     If the symphony falls a bit short here, the song cycle does not: it is excellent.  Thomas Hampson has a very clear voice that is slightly thin but can nevertheless produce plenty of power when needed.  His control is top-notch, and his vocal acting is superb: he really seems to inhabit the soul of the wandering poet, whose beloved has married another and who knows he will find comfort only in death.  One of the best things about this CD is the clarity with which Tennstedt highlights themes from the song cycle when they appear in the symphony, giving listeners real insight into Mahler’s compositional methodology.

     The London Philharmonic shines on these two recordings, both of which showcase it as a first-rate ensemble that can handle with aplomb the highly varied demands of very different conductors presenting very different music.

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