Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Anne Schwanewilms, soprano; Lioba Braun, contralto; Chor der Bamberger Symphoniker and Bamberger Symphoniker-Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $29.99 (2 SACDs).
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $8.99.
The gigantism of symphonies of the late 19th century is scarcely news: Bruckner’s overwhelming architectural sound edifices tower over an era in which the symphonic form seemed to expand and expand again – think of Anton Rubinstein’s seven-movement Symphony No. 2, “Ocean,” as just one less-known example among many. But for many listeners, hugeness of symphonic construction is practically synonymous with Gustav Mahler, who was quite capable of creating a symphony lasting nearly as long as an opera (the six-movement Third). Mahler’s five-movement Second, the “Resurrection,” is not much shorter, but its length has not prevented it from becoming a staple of the orchestral repertoire, more so than ever now that the centenary of Mahler’s death will occur next year. There are many very fine performances of Mahler’s Second, the best of them striking a careful balance between the huge and overwhelming sound in some sections and the tremendous delicacy – very carefully scored – in others. Jonathan Nott’s new, sonically outstanding Second, a live recording, is an especially strong entry in the Mahler field. Nott does not hesitate to pull out all the stops in the funeral march of the first movement, which swells, bursts and crashes repeatedly to the point of leaving a listener nearly exhausted. Mahler actually expected this effect – he said there should be a pause of at least five minutes between this movement and the next, much gentler one. Some versions of the Second pay at least minimal homage to Mahler’s wishes by isolating the first movement on the first disc and putting all the others on the second, but not this one: the first and second movements are on the first SACD, the remaining three on the other. This juxtaposes the first and second movements more closely than Mahler wanted, but it also gives a listener quicker relaxation from the opening movement’s extreme drama. Nott makes the second movement slow and gentle – a strong contrast to his speedy, intense conclusion of the first – and thereby changes the mood almost instantaneously. The pastoral atmosphere of this movement yields to a more-intense scherzo than usual, with Nott emphasizing its angularity and grotesquerie more than its gentle flow. Because of this approach, the vocal entry at the start of the fourth movement is – as in the transition from first movement to second – a greater contrast than is typically heard. And Lioba Braun really is a contralto, comfortable in a range that can be a strain for the mezzo-sopranos who are often called on to sing this movement. After Braun’s dark-hued voice, the crashing opening of the finale is highly dramatic – here again, Nott brings out the strongest possible contrasts between and within movements. The purely orchestral part of the finale is especially impassioned in this performance: Nott turns up the emotional temperature well before the chorus enters. When it does, at the very edge of audibility (and with sound captured carefully by the SACD engineers), there is warmth and beauty aplenty, which builds through the words of Mahler and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock to an overwhelming sense of hope and expectation of eternal life. The broad affirmation of the symphony’s end is very much in keeping with Nott’s emphasis throughout on its grand scale and intensity. This is not an especially warm Mahler Second, but it is a dramatic and highly effective interpretation.
Nearly 50 years separate Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 – his second big wartime symphony, following by a year and a half No. 7, the “Leningrad.” The Eighth is more complex structurally than the Seventh – among other things, its fourth movement is the composer’s first orchestral passacaglia – but is every bit as subject to bombast and overstatement if a conductor does not control it carefully. Vasily Petrenko, the young Russian who is Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, maintains a firm command of the Eighth throughout, and the result is an outstandingly successful performance. From the start, when the orchestra’s lower strings growl with all the burnished darkness of those of a Russian orchestra, it is clear that Petrenko, who is only 34, has already taken the measure of this music and found a way to communicate its depths to the players. There is tremendous drama and vitality here – the symphony’s moods shift frequently, and there is conflict aplenty, but in the end there is positive affirmation instead of the rather wan hope offered in an almost obligatory way in its predecessor (which, to be sure, was written in darker days of World War II). As the Eighth progresses, Petrenko handles each movement on its individual terms while maintaining a solid overview of the entire work. The second-movement Allegretto is filled with rudeness and crudity – but there are also flashes of elegance, notably in the high winds. The third movement is astonishing, perhaps the best ever recorded. It is raucous to the point of vulgarity: a nonstop clatter of screeching winds, pounding timpani and cutting trumpets atop snare-drum exclamations. It is so intense that the contrast with the fourth-movement Largo is even starker than usual. This movement is sweet, restrained and very moving – and leads directly into a finale that opens features a whimsical bassoon early on, but soon becomes so intense (and loud) that it is nearly overwhelming. But Petrenko shapes this concluding Allegretto carefully, allowing it to blare but making sure there is something ineffable about its quiet coda. This is the third CD of Shostakovich symphonies that Petrenko has recorded for Naxos – after No. 11 and a disc pairing Nos. 5 and 9 – and it is at least as good as the first two, which were also excellent. A full Shostakovich cycle from Petrenko is shaping up as something to celebrate.