August 04, 2011


Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Adriana Kučerová, soprano; Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano; London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4; Academic Festival Overture; Tragic Overture. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur. PentaTone. $29.99 (3 SACDs).

     The sheer scale of Mahler’s symphonies is a source of continued amazement when performances take full advantage of it, as did Vladimir Jurowski’s reading of the “Resurrection” symphony at Royal Festival Hall in London on September 25 and 26, 2009. Those Jurowski performances with the London Philharmonic Orchestra are now available on the orchestra’s own label, and they are very much worth hearing. Jurowski takes a very broad and expansive view of this symphony, not so much through slow tempos (although his are on the slow-ish side) as through a willingness to let phrases breathe and allow silences to be extended (it was Haydn who remarked on the importance of getting the silences right in music). The symphony in Jurowski’s interpretation does not quite fit on a single disc, so the first movement here gets a CD of its own – a wise decision, since Mahler himself called for a five-minute pause between the first movement (which ties back to his Symphony No. 1) and the second (which follows the opening uneasily and enters new territory). The grand striding of the first movement here stands in strong contrast to the quiet idyll of the following Andante moderato, after which the scherzo (based on the Rückert song, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes”) is given more bite than usual – there is not only irony but also some bitterness in this music, as Jurowski sees it. Then the Urlicht movement, which introduces voice for the first time, follows without a break and is simply glorious: mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn’s dark, burnished voice is beautifully communicative, rising to real anguish at the words about the little angel trying to bar the path to God. All these elements set up a highly dramatic and very intense finale, whose lengthy instrumental opening strides forth as bravely as does the music of the opening movement – but in a very different mood. And when the chorus finally enters, ever so quietly, with “Aufersteh’n,” there is a feeling of expectation and hopefulness that carries right through to the eventual mystical proclamation that the soul shall rise again – albeit not in conformity with any organized religious tradition. The intensity of the earlier parts of the symphony becomes soul-stirring transcendence by the end of the finale, as Mahler surely intended, and the result is a thoroughly satisfying performance in which soloists, chorus and orchestra join in beauty, sweeping listeners along with them.

     There is sweep of a different sort in Kurt Masur’s Brahms cycle, recorded in 1976 and now available in remastered SACD form thanks to some fine engineering work by PentaTone. The sound is still not quite up to the best modern SACD standards, but its analog origins give it a fullness and richness that original digital recordings did not attain until many years later. And Masur’s understanding of this music – when added to the excellent and highly knowledgeable playing of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig – makes this set a winner from start to finish. Actually, the cycle shows its age less in sonic terms than through some aspects of performance practice, notably the unfortunate paucity of repeats – typical in the 1970s but now, thankfully, much less often encountered. Nevertheless, this is broad-scale Brahms. Tempos are well chosen, allowing the music time to breathe while still keeping the symphonies moving smartly ahead. The First opens grandly and concludes with grandeur of a different kind, the questions raised in its first three movements answered nobly in the fourth. The Second – the symphony that perhaps benefits the most from a repeat of the first-movement exposition, but does not receive it here – manages to be genial without sounding light or even lighthearted: there is something like gruff good humor here rather than any superficial gaiety. The tightly knit Third emerges as a thoroughly connected, interwoven whole here, with Masur bringing out the motivic relationships among the movements and scaling the symphony as a large work of chamber music rather than giving it any sort of gigantism. And the Fourth, a work at once mighty and reserved, here has propulsive energy and a monumental sense of scale, which carries right through the variations of the final Passacaglia into a triumphant conclusion. Add to these fine readings a couple of wonderful performances of the bright Academic Festival Overture and its dark companion piece, the Tragic Overture, and you have a Brahms cycle that thoroughly explores the composer’s musical scale and communicates his thoughts to impressive effect.

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