Mahler: Symphony No. 6. SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. Hänssler Classic. $16.99.
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. London Symphony Orchestra (Nos. 1, 3, 4) and Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (No. 2) conducted by Antal Dorati. Newton Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies; Egmont Overture; Leonore Overture No. 3. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Newton Classics. $34.99 (6 CDs).
Not all so-called “classic” recordings wear well, but some do. In fact, some are as good as the most modern recordings of the same music, if not better. Hänssler Classics has released one of the most exciting Mahler Sixths available, recorded shortly before his death in 1981 by Kirill Kondrashin, who conducted the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg with tremendous intensity. Kondrashin starts the symphony very strongly with a gripping, fast march rhythm reminiscent of Shostakovich. The timpani are strongly played but sound rather hollow, and the cowbells are not very prominent – in these ways the recording shows its age. But the strength of the performance and clarity with which Kondrashin brings out Mahler’s instrumentation more than make up for the sonic deficiencies. One example: the fine horn playing of the slowed march theme above the more usually heard warm string theme. Throughout this first movement, fast sections are speedier than usual but still retain the feeling of a march. The second movement is also fast – and the brass clearly snarls, even if not as effectively as in some later recordings. This movement’s Trio, taken slowly, sounds like a meandering walk through the countryside. One interesting aspect of the performance here is the percussion, whose sounds are brought out prominently and brightly: Kondrashin emphasizes dissonance and clashes of sound throughout the work. The third movement flows gently, at a real Andante moderato pace, providing a clear contrast to what has come before; indeed, this is the only respite in the entire symphony. Then the finale pulls right back into high drama from its beginning. The well-paced opening leads into a quick main section in which Kondrashin emphasizes the contrasting sound of instrumental groups. The passion here is at times almost frenetic, resulting in a tremendously dramatic concluding movement and an overall performance that can stand up to any recording made in the last 30 years.
This is not to say that all “classic” recordings are at this level; by no means. Newton Classics specializes in re-releases of fine recordings from the analog and early digital ages, but although Antal Dorati was a first-class conductor, his Newton Classics Brahms cycle is not among his best legacies. It really shows its age, not only in the general lack of repeats (an unfortunate but common practice when these recordings were made) but also in sound that is frequently thin and compressed-sounding. The whole compendium here is rather odd, including three performances with the London Symphony and one with the Minneapolis Symphony. Unfortunately, Newton Classics’ booklet includes only information on the music, not on the conductor or these specific performances. This is a very curious arrangement, since it is scarcely believable that anyone would buy this set for purely musical reasons – potential buyers would surely like to know about the conductor and the circumstances surrounding these particular recordings. In any case, the performances date back quite some time, to 1957 (No. 2), 1959 (No. 1) and 1963 (Nos. 3 and 4). The two newest readings turn out to be the best, and not just sonically. In Symphony No. 1, Dorati paces the first movement well and builds it effectively; the second is also well paced, although not deeply emotional. The third starts gently, but the middle section is somewhat too intense and dramatic to provide any sense of relaxation. The finale opens well, with good pizzicato strings, but the horns sound rather tinny; and while the pacing of the main section is good, the overall impression is simply of a straightforward interpretation with so-so sound. Symphony No. 2 does not fare even this well. It lacks warmth, the winds sound shrill and thin, the third movement is overly speedy, and the finale sounds rather harsh despite its attractive ebullience. Symphony No. 3, another middle-of-the-road interpretation, improves after a nicely paced but rather ordinary-sounding first movement whose overall effect is tepid (although here Dorati does take the repeat). The later movements feature good use of brass and an increasing sense of drama, with the finale especially well-proportioned and well played. Even better is Symphony No. 4, which starts at a leisurely pace that Dorati uses to show its power. The second movement is sensitive, the third bright and bouncily effective, and the finale well- structured and well-paced. There is enough that is good in this recording to earn it a (+++) rating, but it will scarcely be anyone’s first choice of a Brahms cycle.
The Beethoven set from Sir Colin Davis and Staatskapelle Dresden, however, gets a (++++) rating and could well be a listener’s first choice. Again, Newton Classics includes no information on the conductor or recording, but this set is much more recent than the Dorati Brahms release: the Davis recordings were made between 1991 and 1993. Thus, these are original digital recordings, and not especially early ones; the sound is just fine throughout, its main defect being a slight hollowness that is more obvious in some performances than others. This Beethoven cycle can be summed up in a single word: well-proportioned. Davis carefully and correctly takes the indicated repeats, so the symphonies’ layouts are as Beethoven intended, and there are lovely details in every piece. No. 1 features a light touch in a nicely balanced reading that is never overly weighty. No. 2 is well-paced, although some may find the finale a little plodding (others may consider it stately). No. 3 is grand in style and pacing, but not overdone, with particularly good horns and a very impressive second-movement funeral march. No. 4 is kept fairly light and ebullient, especially in the finale, and the orchestra’s sections are particularly well balanced. The first movement of No. 5 is slightly slower than usual and very dramatic, making for a strong contrast with the relaxed second. The third builds well and has some nice bassoon touches, and the finale is more dignified than triumphant – a very well-done approach. No 6 contrasts a pleasantly paced first movement with a relaxed second; the parody elements of the third are well done, the fourth-movement storm is quite dramatic, and there is fine lilt to the finale.
The last three symphonies are all high points of this set. In No. 7, the first movement’s introduction builds expressively to a craggy and impressive main section; the second starts very softly, flows very gently and is quite beautiful; the third is paced well and played with verve; and the finale, with its strong rhythmic emphasis, crowns the work very aptly indeed. No. 8 features an emphatic opening movement, a second one that percolates along nicely and a finale whose small-scale and large-scale elements are neatly played against each other – although a little more rough humor would have been welcome throughout. No. 9 is excellent from start to finish, with a very grand and broad first movement that makes it clear there is nothing subsidiary about this opening (some conductors downplay it). The second movement is also handled on a large scale, and the third is gently meandering and quite well played. The finale features soprano Sharon Sweet, contralto Jadwiga Rappé, tenor Paul Frey, baritone Franz Grundheber and the excellent Chor der Staatsoper Dresden. Here the initial voice entry is unusually declamatory, and all the vocal sections are handled with strength and nobility – and there are also many attractive instrumental touches, notably amid the choral sections. This is a highly satisfying performance on all levels. The two overtures in the set are fine, too: Egmont is sturdy, a touch lacking in dramatic intensity, but very triumphant at the end, and Leonore No. 3 is treated as a tone poem and, again, has a celebratory and particularly effective conclusion. There have been many Beethoven cycles released since this one was recorded, but this Davis compilation is entirely worthy to stand with the best of them from the past 20 years.