March 24, 2011


Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Stefania Woytowicz, soprano; Anny Delorie, contralto; Kölner Rundfunkchor and Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by William Steinberg. ICA Classics. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 9. WDR Sinfonierchester Köln conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Profil. $16.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1; Stravinsky: The Firebird—Suite (1945 version). BBC Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. ICA Classics. $16.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     Depending on which classic recording you compare with which modern one, you may come to the conclusion that not much has changed interpretatively – or that a great deal has. The Mahler “Resurrection” symphony conducted by William Steinberg in 1965 – at a time when Mahler was scarcely the ever-present force on concert programs that he later became – is a kind of antithesis to the then-prevailing approach to this vast work. Already by 1965, the emotional emphasis of Bruno Walter – to the occasional detriment of Mahler’s careful structure and rhythmic vitality – was something of a norm, and had been taken much further by Leonard Bernstein, whose performances were instant classics and remain brilliant…even if they are often not very close to what Mahler intended. Steinberg (1899-1978), in contrast, offers a rather cool “Resurrection.” This is beautifully played music, carefully sculpted by a masterful hand, with wonderful attention to orchestral detail, including tempos and rhythms. But it is a performance that never soars. The first movement, for example, is musically rich but never heroic in any sort of grand style. The third, based on Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, is more plodding than flowing. The female soloists are quite fine – Stefania Woytowicz is even better than Anny Delorie – but there is little strong characterization from them, and not much more from the chorus (and no texts are provided – a glaring omission in the packaging). What should be a magical moment – the first choral intonation of “Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n” – is pedestrian, and the finale as a whole scarcely seems transcendent. There is nothing clearly wrong with the performance, and it certainly shows Steinberg’s skill with big, difficult music that he was not especially noted for conducting. But it also shows why the Walter/Bernstein approach, although in many ways less accurate than Steinberg’s in presenting Mahler as Mahler intended, caught fire with audiences and helped make the composer the part of the standard repertoire that he is today.

     One of today’s top conductors – although, like Steinberg, not necessarily a top Mahler conductor – is Jukka-Pekka Saraste, whose new version of Mahler’s Ninth is played by the same orchestra that Steinberg conducted (WDR Sinfonierchester Köln is its current name). Interestingly, the performance is almost identical in length to Steinberg’s of No. 2, Saraste’s No. 9 being only 11 seconds longer. And there are other parallels, too, surely unintended. The orchestra plays very well indeed for Saraste, who is now its principal conductor – although he did not yet hold that position when this recording was made, in 2009. But the interpretation is somewhat lacking in emotional depth. The first movement is the best of the four, flowing smoothly, naturally and with a feeling of considerable depth. But the middle movements are prosaic, with the Rondo-Burleske especially disappointing – there is nothing demonic about it, and precious little than even seems intense. As a result, the contrast between its conclusion and the start of the finale is muted. And that last movement, which sums up the symphony so elegantly and emotively – even if it does not, despite what some have argued, sum up everything Mahler ever wrote – is simply bland for most of its length. A listener seeks in vain for any strong emotional underpinning in a performance that is more pretty than heartfelt. It is only at the very, very end of the movement, when Saraste lets the orchestra subside further and further into quietude and ultimately silence, that there is a sense of just how deep this music is – or can be – from start to finish. As with Steinberg’s Mahler Second, there is nothing obviously “wrong” with Saraste’s Mahler Ninth. But it is not a gripping performance, and not one that seems fully in sync with the depth of the composer’s feelings.

     Like Mahler, Tchaikovsky wore his feelings very much on his sleeve – and there are conductors strongly identified with each composer. Unfortunately, Evgeny Svetlanov’s reading of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 does not at all show why this conductor was held in such high esteem in this music. Svetlanov (1928-2002) gave this performance on April 19, 2002, a mere two weeks before he died. He was frail at the end of his life, and his podium gestures had become difficult to follow, but he was so familiar with this music that a listener has the right to hope for something special. Alas, it is not, was not, to be. This is perhaps the draggiest “Winter Dreams” symphony ever recorded – so slow, almost throughout, that its beauties seem to emerge reluctantly, as if frozen in molasses. The first movement, “Dreams of a Winter Journey,” pokes along as if pushing constantly through snowdrifts, and the second, “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists,” is an even greater disappointment. Yes, it is marked Adagio cantabile, but this adagio is closer to a largo, and if there is any singing here, it is that of a dirge. The BBC Symphony’s instrumental playing is fine, but this movement is virtually static and one thing that Tchaikovsky should never be: boring. The third movement is slow as well, although thankfully not to an unbearable extent, and thankfully the trio – some of the loveliest music in the symphony – is nicely played. The finale’s introduction drags itself along, but there is finally (finally!) some perkiness and bravado in the movement’s main section. Rather too much, in fact, since it is only marked Allegro moderato. Still, the finale does stride along very well most of the way, until Svetlanov insists on such a headlong rush in the coda that nearly all the composer’s expressiveness disappears. Svetlanov was a much better conductor than this – it is a shame to have this Tchaikovsky as part of his legacy. Thank goodness it is coupled with a Stravinsky Firebird Suite recorded in 1996, which shows the conductor in much, much better form. Stravinsky was another composer with whose works Svetlanov was especially identified, and this recording supports the admiration felt for Svetlanov’s handling of this music. Tempos are well chosen, all the coloristic effects of the music are brought forth effectively (the Philharmonia Orchestra’s brass acquitting itself particularly well), the rhythms are crisp, and the balletic flow of what is, after all, a ballet, is maintained throughout. This is early Stravinsky, written very much in Russian Romantic mode, and the performance is pretty much everything that the Tchaikovsky performance is not: well paced, well thought out, evocative of the spirit behind the music, and fully worthy of the applause heard at the end.

     Like Svetlanov, Mikhail Pletnev has a strong reputation in the music of Tchaikovsky – but unlike Svetlanov’s disappointing First, Pletnev’s (++++) recording of the Fourth clearly shows how well-deserved that reputation is. From the opening proclamation of the “fate” motif on burnished brass, through a first movement handled with tone-poem flair so its length does not seem ungainly and its episodic nature makes perfect sense, Pletnev shows his clear understanding of and empathy for Tchaikovsky’s music. A second movement that nicely balances the first, rocking gently and not wallowing in the emotionalism of the lengthy opening, is followed by a quicksilver pizzicato Scherzo that flits and dances here and there and enfolds a rollicking trio in which the woodwind playing is outstanding. Then the finale bursts like thunder on the scene, with Pletnev’s pacing and the excellent playing of the Russian National Orchestra combining to produce a thrilling and highly dramatic conclusion. The first recording by this orchestra was an outstanding Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony conducted by Pletnev – and on the basis of that recording and this one, it would be wonderful to have a full set of these symphonies from these collaborators, especially so in sound as clear and warm as PentaTone delivers on this SACD. Additional recordings of Tchaikovsky tone poems would be welcome, too, if the Romeo and Juliet that fills out this disc is any indicator. From its gloom-laden opening, to its speedy and intense musical confrontation of Montagues and Capulets, through the gorgeous viola playing introducing the famous “love theme,” throughout the ensuing development and on to the final tragic ending, this is a lovingly crafted and insightful performance by musicians who seem to feel the music as well as understand it. When it comes to Tchaikovsky’s music, Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra are clearly the equals of any classic partnership.

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