April 12, 2012


Mahler: Symphony No. 1; Webern: Im Sommerwind. SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by François-Xavier Roth. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Michaela Schuster, alto; Mädchen und Knaben der Chöre am Kölner Dom, Damenchor der Oper Köln and Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe conducted by Justin Brown. Pan Classics. $21.99 (SACD).

      When Mahler wrote rather plaintively in 1902 that “my time will come when his is finished,” he was speaking of Richard Strauss, master of the late-19th- and turn-of-the-20th-century tone poem and, not coincidentally, a composer highly focused on the profitability of what he wrote.  Mahler was better known in his time as a conductor, did his composing almost entirely in summertime breaks from his conducting duties, and had little expectation that his vast symphonies and unusual cycles of songs with orchestral accompaniment would be to audiences’ tastes during his lifetime.  He was proved wrong, to an extent, with the success of his Symphony No. 8, but in fact it was not until half a century after his death in 1911 that Mahler’s works, championed by conductors including Bruno Walter and (especially) Leonard Bernstein, moved into the standard repertoire.  These compositions are now so firmly cemented there that it is hard to imagine them fading from public consciousness, even though there really are so few of them.  One of the most amazing things about Mahler is that he wrote so little – yet almost everything that he did write, except perhaps for the single surviving piano-quartet movement and Das Klagende Lied – is played again and again, all over the world.

      The result of this intensifying interest in a small number of works has been a tremendous rise in the quality of performances, to the point that readings of the Mahler symphonies today are generally at a level unimaginable when Walter and Bernstein made their recordings.  Conductors study Mahler as carefully as they study Beethoven, and it shows in releases like the new ones of Mahler symphonies by François-Xavier Roth, Markus Stenz and Justin Brown.  These are all exemplary, thoughtful, beautifully played renditions that reveal anew the depths of the music – which, like Beethoven’s, still seems to have even more elements that can be brought forward in the future.

      Roth’s Mahler First starts slowly and very softly indeed, the first movement opening in a magical landscape and then flowing beautifully into the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  This movement builds well throughout, with especially fine brass and percussion.  The second movement is quick, propulsive and so lively as to be almost perky – scarcely an adjective usually associated with Mahler.  The third movement is especially well done, with a pervasive sense of the wry and sarcastic.  The images here are funereal but not dismal, and the satirical “oom-pah” section is particularly well handled.  Thanks to the fine quality of the recording, the movement fades away very gradually to inaudibility, with the result that the bursting forth of the opening of the finale is genuinely startling – as Mahler wanted it to be.  This movement, which meanders and can all too easily lose its way, is beautifully proportioned here, with the strings of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg being especially impressive.  Roth’s attentiveness to detail is remarkable, too – for example, the full-orchestra rest about three minutes into the movement is as dramatic in its own way as the tutti elsewhere, the silence seeming even more amazing in a live recording, which this is.  The finale strides boldly to the end and makes an exciting and wholly satisfactory conclusion to an extremely fine performance.  Roth also offers here a kind of “what might have been,” Anton Webern’s Im Sommerwind, which interestingly bridges the gap between Strauss and Mahler in some ways (leaning more toward the former) and which shows how Webern could have composed if he had not become an ardent adherent of Schoenberg and a minimalist par excellence.  This thoroughly Romantic tone poem, which Webern called an “idyll,” was written in 1904 – 15 years later than the first performance of the first version of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.  It is as much a throwback in some ways as Webern’s later music was to be a look into the distant future.  Roth brings out its sectional changes effectively, offering wonderful attention to detail, and the orchestra – particularly the horns – plays with great beauty.  The pairing of these works is an intriguing one, and the performances are of the highest caliber.  The one flaw here is Hänssler Classic’s incorrect timing for the CD: it runs just over 66 minutes, not the 76-plus listed.

      Stenz’s Mahler Third is at just as high a level as Roth’s Mahler First.  Stenz is proving to be one of the best Mahler conductors of the present day, with so sure a hand for the pulse and the meaning of the music that his performances are both exciting and revelatory.  The gigantic first movement of the Third gets a brisk and bold opening, with a very big sound from the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln and a strong march rhythm.  The low strings are especially impressive throughout a movement that flows from element to element with rare confidence, seeming far better connected and less episodic than it often does, thanks in part to superb SACD sound that brings out every detail of the playing.  The second movement, gentle and flowing, gives way to a beautifully balanced third movement in which Stenz pays close attention to changes in dynamics – and the orchestra offers a posthorn solo that is not only beautifully played but also surprisingly wistful.  Alto Michaela Schuster is intense and passionate in the Nietzsche text of the fourth movement, whose darkness is contrasted exactly as it should be with the lithe and quick fifth, where Stenz brings the brass – especially the trumpets – to the fore, providing as much lightness as there was dark in the prior movement.  Oehms gives the texts only in German – a consistent irritation from this company, for English speakers – but Stenz’s conducting makes the emotional contrast of the movements abundantly clear.  And the emotion of the finale sums up and ties together everything that has come before.  Starting delicately and in quietude, this movement is conducted more quickly than usual, but except in a few sections, it does not feel fast: the overall impression is that Stenz is more focused on the second and third parts of the tempo designation – Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden. – than the first: this is music that is calm and heartfelt to a greater degree than it is simply slow.  Stenz builds the movement surely and carefully to a highly involving climax and conclusion, scaling emotional heights that are simply breathtaking – and cathartic.

      Justin Brown and the Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe are not as well-known in Mahler interpretation as the other performers considered here, but they will be if this reading of the Symphony No. 9 is indicative of their abilities.  Like Roth’s Mahler First, this is a live recording; like Stenz’s Mahler Third, it is blessed with SACD sound that lets the conductor bring forward every nuance of the music.  And Brown discovers and brings out a very substantial number of them.  The horns are especially impressive in the first movement, where the sense of yearning is almost palpable from the start.  The movement builds in intensity and emotion, the exceptionally clear sound being of particular value in measures where the percussion bursts through either strongly or – at least as impressively – with delicacy.  The second movement’s sense of grotesquerie is particularly clear here, with Brown focusing on the angularity of Mahler’s rhythms and highlighting the music’s dissonances.  And then comes the frantic, near-hysterical energy of the third movement, which constantly sounds as if it going to veer off-track but never does – not even when it comes that close to going out of control at the very end.  Listeners will be so breathless at this point that the very broad opening of the gorgeous finale will be a genuinely startling contrast.  Here the strings excel, but the winds are equally wonderful, especially in the chamber-music-like sections on which Brown dwells lovingly, balancing the substantiality of the music’s emotionalism with minimalist expressiveness that is amazingly forward-looking.  This movement proceeds on ocean-like waves of inevitability, swelling and subsiding on its way toward a very gentle ending that proffers the peace, not of death (as in some other performances), but of transcendence and acceptance.  This is a gorgeous and deeply meaningful conclusion that makes one hope for more Mahler from Brown and his orchestra – and, for that matter, from Roth and Stenz as well, since all show convincingly in these recordings that Mahler’s time to be understood, analyzed and emotionally explored has most certainly, even gloriously, arrived.

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