February 28, 2008


Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Artek. $19.99 (2 CDs).

      There is an argument to be made for conducting Mahler with tremendous attention to detail, allowing the larger shape of his symphonies to coalesce around their smaller elements. In a sense, Mahler wrote chamber music for large orchestra, and the detail-oriented approach would treat his symphonies essentially as chamber pieces for 100-plus players.

      Gerard Schwarz, unfortunately, makes this musical argument with only intermittent success in his versions of Symphonies Nos. 1 (recorded in 2003) and 9 (from 2006). Schwarz’s attention to detail is often impressive, but Mahler’s world-spanning canvases never quite emerge from the mass of pointillist dots out of which Schwarz sees them as being created.

      The fact that Schwarz generally favors speedy tempos does not help his approach. In the first symphony, the first movement features impressive trumpet calls – an important detail – but moves at an impatient pace, with some uncalled-for rubato. A sense of grandeur is missing. The second movement proceeds well until a rushed conclusion. The third is just a little too fast for a funeral march, even an ironic or sarcastic one, although individual instruments play well and are nicely brought to the fore. The finale starts very dramatically, and the slow sections are – somewhat surprisingly – not rushed, with the quiet playing being especially impressive (the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic can play clearly when it is almost inaudible – quite an achievement). The movement as a whole, though, feels speedy and, as a result, superficial, concluding with little subtlety or sense of grand scale.

      Brisk tempos mark the start of the ninth symphony as well: there is no mystery in the opening of the first movement, but a sense of “let’s get on with it.” The fact that the orchestra’s strings sound clear but not lush increases the impression of a perfunctory performance. But as the movement progresses, it improves, with the dramatic outbursts genuinely striking and the instrumental details impressively focused. The movement emerges sounding episodic, with little sense of ebb and swell, but the careful attention to individual components makes it easy to hear interesting details of Mahler’s careful orchestration. The second movement is even better – the most impressive single movement in this two-CD set. Here not only the details but also the rhythms are just right, with the fast sections especially well played and an overall intensity that truly involves a listener. The third movement is not quite at this level: the outbursts and dissonances are well handled, but the rhythms are rather flabby, and the very fast ending comes across as chaotic. The gorgeous finale has more high spots than low. The opening is sad rather than anguished, and the underlying tempo is a touch fast – Adagio con moto rather than just Adagio. The movement drifts rather than builds, but the solos and spare harmonies are made very clear, although the loud climaxes seem to come out of nowhere. The final two minutes, during which the music evaporates, are exceptionally well played, with the orchestra becoming so impossibly quiet that it is hard to be absolutely sure when the music stops. Surely this conclusion is as Mahler intended it.

      Schwarz’s performances are far from definitive, and it would be a strain to call him a great or even top-notch Mahler conductor. But in seeking out the small details in Mahler’s large scores, he draws attention to beauties that even those familiar with these symphonies may not have heard before – even if his overall readings prove less convincing than their individual elements.

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