June 24, 2010


Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Rafael Kubelik. Audite. $6.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Martina Arroyo, Erna Spoorenberg, Edith Mathis, Julia Hamari, Norma Procter, Donald Grobe, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Franz Crass; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks, Chor des Westdeutschen Rundfunks, Regensburger Domspatzen, Frauenchor des Münchner Motettenchores and Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Rafael Kubelik. Audite. $14.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 5: Mahler—Quartet for Piano and Strings; Franck—Quintet for Piano and Strings. Idil Biret, piano; London String Quartet (Carl Pini and Benedict Cruft, violins; Ruşen Güneş, viola; Roger Smith, cello). IBA. $8.99.

     With Mahler’s music now so popular – with a veritable flood of recordings emerging as the 100th anniversary of his death in 1911 approaches – it is all too easy to forget that his symphonies and song cycles were esoteric just a few decades ago. When Mahler himself famously said, “My time will come when his is over,” he was referring to Johann Strauss Jr. – but the quotation nowadays is usually abbreviated to “my time will come” and used to indicate Mahler’s expectation that it would take many years for his music to be widely accepted. And so it did: despite the early advocacy of conductors who knew Mahler personally (notably Bruno Walter), it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that Mahler’s music was “discovered” by audiences at large and widely accepted as part of the standard orchestral and vocal repertoire.

     Mahler’s music’s progress came in fits and starts, as historic recordings make clear. It was Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) who first performed a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies, in Munich, and Kubelik’s way with Mahler – set firmly in the central European and Germanic tradition – is impressive even today. But for 21st-century listeners, his historic recordings have nearly as many low points as high ones. Audite is selling the live recording of Kubelik’s November 2, 1979 performance of Mahler’s First at a low price because the CD is packaged as an insert with the Audite 2010 recording catalogue: listeners are essentially paying for the catalogue and getting the disc as a bonus (there is not a shred of information presented about the performance except what is printed on the CD). Despite the irritating packaging strategy, there is a great deal to like in this performance. It flows gorgeously, with the smoothness of a fine wine, and Kubelik shows extraordinary sensitivity to Mahler’s mood shifts – naïveté, drama, preciousness, vulgarity and passion all get their full due. But Kubelik, like Walter, came from a tradition in which conductors seeking a work’s emotional center played fast and loose with what the composer actually wrote. This does not go down well in Mahler, who was a famed conductor himself and knew perfectly well what forms of expression and tempos he wanted (his scores are filled with instructions for conductors). Mahler wanted the exposition of the first movement of Symphony No. 1 repeated; Kubelik does not repeat it. Mahler wanted consistent tempos within sections; Kubelik varies them constantly, with rubato so frequent that it becomes an integral part of the performance. The tempo changes are usually slight but always noticeable, as Kubelik extends a phrase here and compresses one there in attempting to get to the heart of the music. It has to be said that this is often effective: the contrast between the storms and beauties of the finale is brought out particularly well. But it also has to be said that this approach becomes annoying when it is so pervasive a part of a presentation. There is vigor in this recording, and beauty; but it does not ultimately sound like Mahler – at least not Mahler as the composer wanted his music to sound.

     There are similar strengths and weaknesses in Kubelik’s Mahler Eighth, another live recording and an earlier one – dating to June 24, 1970. Some parts of the performance are simply extraordinary. The very opening, for example, strides so boldly that the phrase “Veni, creator spiritus” becomes not a plea for an infusion of the Holy Spirit but a command for it to appear and do Mahler’s bidding. In fact, the entire first part of the symphony is quick and intense – the tempo marking Allegro impetuoso certainly gets its due here. Yet some of the beauty of this first section is missing: Kubelik pushes the music just a little too feverishly at times. In Part II of the symphony, the finale scene from Goethe’s Faust, Kubelik presents some of the most wonderful voices ever to perform this work. What vocal talent! Arroyo, Mathis, Grobe, Fischer-Dieskau – the lineup of stars sparkles, surmounting Mahler’s difficult vocal lines with apparent ease. At the same time, this is a very operatic conception of Part II: instead of being a cantata (or part of a work that is a symphony-cantata hybrid), this section is highly dramatic – and frequently quite speedy (the boys’ chorus does keep up, but it is a near thing a few times). The transcendent message tends to disappear behind the vocal brilliance – although it is certainly a joy to hear such first-rate singers in this music. At the end, when everything resounds – surely even the concert hall in Munich – Kubelik produces a truly overwhelming conclusion. But for all its excitement, the performance lacks a touch of the ineffable. (And on a mundane level, the CD lacks translations of the Latin and German texts, although it provides them in full in the original languages.)

     It is Mahler in a far more modest mode who is heard on the latest CD from the Idil Biret Archives collection. This fifth volume of performances that were originally released on the short-lived Finnadar label offers the earliest surviving work by Mahler, a single movement for piano and strings that was written in 1876, when the composer was a student at the Vienna Conservatory – and 16 years old. Intended as the opening of a full-length quartet – 24 bars of a scherzo also exist – this is a highly derivative work (largely of Brahms but also of Dvořák) with a few elements that are interesting primarily in hindsight, such as a touch of Gypsy fiddling in a cadenza that appears rather abruptly before the coda. Recorded in 1980, the performance is strong and thoughtful, with Biret playing as part of the ensemble rather than making any attempt to bring the piano into the forefront of music in which it is intended to play an equal rather than dominant role. This is minor Mahler – about as minor as Mahler can get – but interesting in its own way for listeners seeking insight into the very young composer’s Viennese and Bohemian roots. The Mahler is paired on this IBA release, as on the original Finnadar vinyl record, with César Franck’s 1879 Piano Quintet – a work of the same vintage as the Mahler juvenilia but of considerably greater technical assurance. Rich in sonorities and assured in compositional technique, Franck’s Quintet is interesting when juxtaposed with Mahler’s Quartet because the Franck is more Germanic than most of the composer’s music, and has a seriousness and intensity that, if scarcely Mahlerian, seem to have grown in similar soil. There is a solidity to this Quintet, almost a thickness in the scoring, that adds to its drama and makes it seem (again like Mahler’s Quartet) a not-too-distant relation of Brahms’ music. But the Franck does have a number of the composer’s characteristic markers, such as the use of one theme (in various guises) in all three movements. There is also a fine sense of forward flow throughout the Quintet, and an intense emotional consistency that is well explored by the performers. Even 30 years after its initial recording, this performance stands up well both for the quality of the playing and for the high level of its conception and execution.

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