May 20, 2010


Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Sir Roger Norrington. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Maureen Mackay, soprano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Artek. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1; Rückert-Lieder. Christine Schäfer, soprano; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Capriccio. $16.99.

     The tempos that today’s conductors select for Mahler are, in a word, all over the place (all right, that’s four words). Their choice of emphasis within the symphonies, and within individual movements, is all over the place, too. Mahler’s famous prediction that his time would yet come needed some 50 years after his death in 1911 to turn into reality; today, another 50 years onward, his times seem to have come: there are many Mahlers, all of common heritage but tremendously different in sound and approach from each other – and from the pioneering performances of Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein.

     Roger Norrington’s Mahler both harks back to the original Mahler tradition and breaks from it in important ways. Norrington is a noted proponent of original playing styles, even when using modern instruments and a modern orchestral complement. For the live recording of Mahler’s Ninth that Hänssler Classic has just released, Norrington had the orchestra’s strings return to the playing style of Mahler’s own time, in which vibrato was minimal or absent except when called for as a special effect. This puts a heavy burden on players trained in modern performance style, in which vibrato is integral to all playing and (not incidentally) can be helpful when one does not hit a note with perfect precision. The Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR – which, after all, is one of Europe’s top ensembles – rises to the challenge and produces clear, clean, transparent sound that is quite unlike the massed (and unfortunately sometimes muddy) sonority often associated with modern-times Mahler. The effect in Mahler’s last completed symphony is quite wonderful: far from being dense and doom-laden, it emerges as a work of surprising optimism despite a sense of Abschied throughout (not just in the last movement). The first movement – which, as Norrington points out in his booklet notes, repeatedly makes references to a Johann Strauss Jr. waltz whose title, in English, is “Enjoy Life” – becomes a tone poem in which death may be inevitable but is scarcely demonic. The middle movements, which do often sound demonic, here come across as elements of the wild whirligig of life, with even the Rondo Burleske emerging as hectic but not frantic or depraved. And the finale – well, here Norrington decidedly breaks with Mahler performance tradition, as a cursory glance at the timing of the movement will show. This is one of the fastest Adagio conclusions ever recorded for this symphony – and yet, and this is the surprising and wonderful thing, it does not feel fast except in a very few places. Somehow Norrington, while keeping the underlying pace quicker than usual, brings out all the emotion that Mahler put into this finale and that listeners have come to expect in it. And the very ending is truly sublime: impeccably played and almost unbearably beautiful in the mode of “I hope this never ends.” In all, Norrington’s Ninth is an extraordinary performance that remakes the Mahler landscape in important ways.

     Gerard Schwarz’s Mahler Fourth – also recorded live – is not at this rarefied level, but it is one of the better entries in the Mahler cycle that Schwarz is currently producing with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Simply from the point of view of tempos, Schwarz tends to go in the direction opposite Norrington’s: this is a leisurely Fourth, running almost a full hour. It does not drag, though, because once he selects tempos, Schwarz stays true to them; and the ones he picks help him bring out the naïve and bucolic qualities of the symphony – which is filled with them. The sleigh bells in the first movement give the impression of a wintertime country scene here, and the musical conflicts of the movement are not harsh but more like those of natural forces. The second movement, with its scordatura solo violin, sounds like something out of folk stories: Death may be present, but in the comparatively companionable form of a fairy-tale character rather than the terrifying one of other Mahler symphonies. The slow (sometimes quite slow) variations of the third movement wind unerringly upward in a subtly balanced performance that emerges into real splendor when the gates of Heaven open at the movement’s climax. Once through those gates, though, there is a bit of a letdown, for soprano Maureen Mackay’s singing in the finale is a touch too breathy and a little too emphatic for Mahler’s extremely innocent, childlike setting of the “Heavenly Life” song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (whose short text Artek really should have provided in this CD’s booklet). The very simplicity of this movement makes the vocal line extremely difficult to deliver effectively – Bernstein famously had it sung by a boy soprano, who almost made up in purity what he lacked in technique. Mackay has a bit too much technique to put across the childlike wonder of the whole scene to which the symphony builds. As a whole, though, this Mahler Fourth is a very satisfying one.

     Christoph Eschenbach’s studio-recorded Mahler First is somewhat less effective and therefore gets a (+++) rating. Eschenbach has a very fine orchestra here – the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin easily handles everything the conductor asks of it – but this performance does not seem to be as thoroughly thought-through as those of Norrington and Schwarz. Eschenbach repeatedly slips into small but irritating mannerisms, such as a ritard and brief pause before this or that emphatic chord – something that Mahler, a brilliant conductor, was perfectly capable of writing into the score if he had wanted it. This periodic jerkiness disrupts the musical flow. And Eschenbach seems less than fully comfortable with some of Mahler’s tone painting – the opening of the first movement, for instance, seems not an awakening of nature but just a set of introductory bars leading to the main theme. The playing is excellent throughout – the brass section is especially good – and when Eschenbach calls for a really big sound, as at the end of the second movement and beginning of the fourth, the orchestra comes through very well indeed. But the quieter sections are not as expressive as they can be. The entire third movement, with its mixture of sincerity and sarcasm, falls rather flat, and the reminiscences contained in the finale (including the references to the dropped “Blumine” movement) seem elements to be gotten through rather than ones in which to dwell for a brief time. There is plenty of skill in Eschenbach’s performance, but it is rather lacking in heart. The five Rückert songs on the CD are uneven as well. Christine Schäfer sounds a touch strained at times, and although she gets the words and rhythms right, she misses a certain level of emotional connection with the texts, especially those of “Im Mitternacht” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” Eschenbach and the orchestra provide fine support, but the performance as a whole is emotionally a bit shallow. There is really nothing wrong with this Mahler CD, but there is not quite enough right for it to be recommended wholeheartedly at a time when so many performers are doing Mahler so outstandingly well.

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