July 07, 2011


Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich conducted by David Zinman. RCA. $17.99 (2 SACDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 10. Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich conducted by David Zinman. RCA. $12.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8. Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

     Mahler’s and Bruckner’s final completed symphonies, the Ninth and Eighth respectively, are monumental works in every sense: huge, long, emotionally fraught, deep, emotive and very difficult to sustain in performance. It is testimony to the quality of modern conductors that so many have essayed these gigantic works and have done so well with them. And among them, David Zinman ranks particularly high, having produced in his new Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich recording a forward-looking, harmonically adventurous and very austere Mahler Ninth. This work does not dwell on inward emotion to the extent of many performances, dating back at least to Leonard Bernstein’s. Instead, this becomes a symphony that both looks backward to Mozartean roots and glances ahead to Schoenberg and his disciples – a piece that stands as a crucial linchpin of symphonic development, not merely an outpouring of highly personal emotion. But this is not to say that emotion is lacking, especially in the finale, which Zinman conducts with intensity that verges on the wrenching. The one thing this highly controlled rendition does not do is “cut loose” in any meaningful way. The second movement flows beautifully but perhaps a touch too expansively, and the Rondo-Burleske never reaches the heights of hysteria that make the final Adagio so overwhelming in contrast. Zinman nevertheless makes a very strong case for his approach to the symphony, which is a very thoughtful one that strips the work of some emotional intensity in return for showing the strength of its musical foundation and the consistency of its musical thought. It would have helped, though, to split the work differently between discs: only the final Adagio is on the second, but the symphony and this performance would have been better served if the first two movements had been on the first SACD and the last two on the second one.

     Mahler’s Ninth is the capstone of Zinman’s cycle of all the composer’s symphonies; the Tenth comes across as more of an addendum. The reason is that Zinman, who in the past has conducted the Deryck Cooke performing version of this uncompleted work, here turns instead to the very first attempted completion of the symphony, by Clinton A. Carpenter. Carpenter (1921-2005), an American musicologist, worked on this score from 1946 until1966; the first performance was in 1983. The main effect of hearing Mahler’s Tenth this way is to make one grateful for Deryck Cooke’s comparatively modest work, which sounds very much like late Mahler even though it is certainly not the way Mahler himself, had he lived, would have finished the symphony. Carpenter’s Mahler Tenth does not sound much like late Mahler at all, for several reasons. For one thing, Carpenter thickens the orchestration and enriches the harmony, robbing the work of the extremely spare lines hinted at in other late Mahler works (the Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde). Furthermore, to avoid composing material to fill in blank spots in the score, Carpenter pulls in excerpts from earlier Mahler symphonies – an approach with which it is easy to sympathize, but one that it is very difficult to approve or enjoy. The Tenth is not the Sixth or Seventh, after all, and hearing bits of those earlier works in Mahler’s final symphony is unnerving, jarring and dislocating – it is all too clear that this is not Mahler’s Tenth as the composer would have wanted it to sound. Zinman’s conducting is less agile and involved here than in the rest of the symphonies, too. The recording gets (+++) for high-quality playing (the orchestra is excellent) and for providing the chance to hear an unusual, if deeply flawed, version of the symphony. But this Mahler Tenth will not likely be any listener’s first choice.

     As for Bruckner’s Eighth, the (++++) live recording by Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra may come as a surprise to those who know this conductor for his intellectual approach to music – which often produces well-played but rather unemotional readings. Welser-Möst turns out to have a real affinity for Bruckner: this is a carefully controlled but scarcely unemotional reading of the symphony, with top-notch orchestral playing and a welcome use of the 1887 Leopold Nowak version of the score – which runs a full hour and a half. There is elegance, refinement and considerable intensity throughout this performance, whose relatively few metronomic moments are more than compensated for by conducting that, the majority of the time, lets the music flow naturally and allows the musicians a chance to shine with truly beautiful tone. It is worth pointing out that the 1887 version of this symphony will not please all lusters: the first movement ends loudly, not softly as in later versions, and the third contains six cymbal clashes rather than the two heard elsewhere. Many critics believe the 1887 version is significantly flawed because of these matters – the first-movement triumph seeming premature and the many cymbal clashes simply vulgar. But the fact remains that this is how Bruckner originally saw the symphony, and it is a view that modern listeners rarely have the opportunity to experience (although Georg Tintner recorded the 1887 version in his Bruckner cycle for Naxos). The big question about this DVD, as always when it comes to visualizing classical music, is whether the pictures enhance the listening experience or not. There are no significant bonus elements to this video presentation – just a pre-concert talk that is fine but not especially illuminating. And certainly there is enough drama in the music itself so that director William Cosel’s changes of focus and camera angle can be intrusive. On the other hand, some may enjoy the feeling of experiencing this August 2010 recording (assembled from two tapings) almost as if it were a live concert. There is, in any case, something exhilarating in hearing Bruckner’s final finished symphony sound the way he originally wanted it to, and played with as much intensity as it receives here.

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