June 07, 2007


Mahler: Symphony No. 9; Strauss: Tod und Verklärung. Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting Staatskapelle Dresden. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).

      No one is likely to name Giuseppe Sinopoli a great Mahler conductor. With Staatskapelle Dresden, of which he was chief conductor from 1992 until his death at age 54 in 2001 (of a heart attack – while conducting Aida), Sinopoli performed only five of Mahler’s completed symphonies: Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 9. He had planned to do No. 2, the “Resurrection,” in May 2001, but he died a month earlier; the work was played in his memory. The 1997 live performance of the Ninth that Profil has just released shows Sinopoli’s considerable strengths in this music – and his frustrating weaknesses.

      To say that Sinopoli believed in expansive pacing is an understatement. The first movement here is so long that it nearly matches the first movement of Mahler’s Third – the composer’s longest. Sinopoli is fully engaged with the poetry of this music: the slow, quiet opening is very beautiful. Most of this movement is expansive, not draggy, with every scoring detail made clear – a pizzicato on strings here, a muted brass note there. Sinopoli prolongs the silences, too, requiring considerable patience from the audience (which remains remarkably silent throughout). The movement’s climaxes are far from overwhelming, and its shape frays a bit, but Sinopoli certainly explores its oceanic depths.

      The second movement starts effectively as a gentle Ländler, and its more-angular sections are played with good attention to rhythm. But some of the harshness is removed, and Sinopoli introduces some intrusive ritards – a serious problem in Mahler, who knew exactly how he wanted things paced. Sinopoli always goes for tenderness, abetted by the wonderfully smooth orchestral sound. But this movement needs more bite. And the Rondo – Burleske is a real disappointment. It is far too mild-mannered, its grotesqueries downplayed. A lack of bitterness is perhaps justifiable here, but a dearth of manic energy is not. The movement is altogether too genteel. In the finale, the massed strings are gorgeous throughout, and the music sounds very tender – not grief-stricken at all. The pervasive, much-slowed third-movement theme is emphasized whenever it appears, but the movement lacks overall conceptualization and subtlety of shape. The ethereal beauty of the ending simply evaporates, and the applause is surprisingly long-delayed, as if the audience was not quite sure whether Sinopoli had finished. There are numerous beauties in this performance, but it lacks the inner strength and stylistic certainty needed for a great Mahler reading.

      Things are much more effective in Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung, in a performance from January 2001 – three months before Sinopoli’s death. Here the slow sections, which are taken very slowly, are well-balanced by intensity and speed in the faster ones. The very quiet opening features beautiful solo work, and when the timpani strike about five minutes from the start, it is a real wake-up call into high drama. The ebb and flow of the piece is very convincing, and its eventual subsidence comes as a triumph – not, as in the Mahler, as a relief. Staatskapelle Dresden is an outstanding Strauss orchestra under any conductor, and clearly gave Sinopoli the beautiful sound he sought and of which it is capable. But the main work on this release is the Mahler, and although it has beauty aplenty, it ultimately fails to encompass more than a portion of the composer’s world.

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