May 31, 2012


Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Charlotte Margiono, soprano; Jard van Nes, contralto; Chor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden, Sinfoniechor Dresden and Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Bernard Haitink. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $24.99 (2 SACDs).

      A Mahler “Resurrection” symphony of surpassing beauty and drama, Bernard Haitink’s 1995 performance in Dresden marked the 50th anniversary of the city’s firebombing by the Allies near the end of World War II – and the first time a work other than a Requiem had been played for this solemn and always heartfelt memorial.  The February 13 Dresden concerts have unique rules and expectations, notably the lack of applause before and afterwards and the post-concert candle lighting by performers, audience and Dresdeners in general at the destroyed Frauenkirche, the cornerstone for whose reconstruction was laid the year before this Mahler concert.  Haitink is justly renowned for his Mahler performances, but this one is special even by his standards, taking the music in some unexpected directions and turning it into an affirmation not only of rebirth but also of life itself.  Haitink’s technique involves the strongest possible contrasts between quiet sections and loud ones, and there are plenty of both in Mahler’s Second.  The Allegro maestoso here starts slowly and builds massively, its opening funeral march contrasted with the ineffable sweetness and quiet of the second theme in a movement that, as a whole, is unusually dramatic.  The very quiet, gentle second movement is exactly the strong contrast that Mahler wanted, and is followed by a third movement that opens with intensity and becomes quite gentle later – the symphony to this point is a roller-coaster emotional ride.  In the fourth movement, which is very quiet and on the slow side, Jard van Nes is highly emotionally expressive in a performance that builds to an ethereal conclusion – and is followed by a tremendously jarring beginning of the finale.  Here the contrasts are truly amazing, with loud sections really loud and instrumental details brought forth with consummate skill.  By the time the elegantly prayerful chorus enters with the affirmative words by Klopstock and Mahler himself, the emotional arc of the symphony feels nearly complete, and the final portion of the movement provides an elegant and highly emotive capstone to one of the most moving performances of this symphony available – a transcendent experience even 17 years later.

      Jonathan Nott’s just-released Mahler Seventh is not quite at this superlative level, but then, the Seventh is a more standoffish and difficult symphony than the intensely evocative Second.  No. 7 is the problem child in Mahler’s symphonic output, a journey through the night, with two movements called Nachtmusik enclosing a central scherzo marked Schattenhaft (“shadowy”) – but with a puzzling opening movement and a finale whose brightness is always on the verge of being overdone and sometimes steps over the edge (as Mahler, who gave it the basic tempo indication Allegro ordinario, was surely aware).  The difficulty with the Seventh lies in bringing it coherence while highlighting the differences among its movements, and Nott does this well.  The first movement features a very dour, deliberate opening followed by alternating passages of strength and delicacy – the totality emerges sounding like a tone poem with an indeterminate ending.  Then the second movement combines eeriness, especially in the winds, with very sweet string sounds, and the third is eerier still, with particularly attractive instrumental balance.  The fourth movement meanders gently, with Nott being highly attentive to detail – and then the timpani provide a really explosive start to the finale, being pounded with enthusiasm that borders on vulgarity.  The instrumental detail in this movement is very well handled, although the pace tends to flag at times in the slower sections.  The faster portions are better, and the ending is suitably raucous, balancing the ambiguous conclusion of the first movement with what passes for affirmative simplicity and a real sense of exhilaration.

      Nott is now most of the way through his Mahler cycle for Tudor: only the Sixth and Eighth remain to be released, plus the Tenth if that is in the works.  This is shaping up to be one of the best Mahler symphony sets available, with every performance being thoughtful, carefully considered and uniformly well played by the Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie.  Nott’s Mahler Fifth is distinguished for its avoidance of the indulgent excesses to which this work seems to invite many conductors.  Already a work of exaggeration, if not to the same as the extent as the Seventh (which is related to it in many ways), the Fifth is most effective when a conductor realizes that there are extremes aplenty right in the score, with no need to add more.  Nott clearly understands this, allowing the intensity and expressivity of the Fifth to emerge simply by playing the work straight – and with generally deliberate tempos, so the opening funeral march really sounds like one and the third movement (which Mahler himself feared conductors would take too quickly) attains a grandeur that explains why Mahler designated this single movement as Part II of the symphony.  All Mahler’s symphonies exhibit bipolarity – the Seventh perhaps most of all, but the Fifth as well, to a very high degree – and this contrast of highs and lows comes through particularly well in Nott’s reading.  Nothing drags here, but everything is broad enough so the full flavor of the emotion and orchestration comes through highly effectively – and the wonderful Adagietto provides both respite from the clamor of the first three movements and a lovely preface to the concluding Rondo-Finale.

      Nott’s Mahler Ninth is also highly successful, but this is a more divisive performance because of the conductor’s approach.  This is an emotionally wrenching symphony whose extremes – that bipolarity again – are exceptionally pronounced, and listeners familiar with it tend to expect conductors to overemphasize both the frenetic elements and the emotional angst of the capstone finale.  Nott takes a different, more-moderate approach: some will find it highly effective, while others may consider it a trifle pale.  Certainly the first movement, rich in overall instrumental texture while also highlighting individual instruments beautifully, is absolutely top-notch, and the tempo is just right; but some may deem the early part of the movement rather ordinary.  The rough geniality of the second movement is quite well done, but the Rondo-Burleske, again, may be too restrained for some tastes – although the orchestra really lets loose at the end of the movement, which means that any holding back earlier in it is clearly the result of Nott’s careful analysis of the work’s structural and emotional components.  It is the grand concluding Adagio that is most likely to provoke debate among Mahler lovers.  Certainly there is a longstanding tradition of making the opening of this movement wrenchingly tragic, taking it at a very slow tempo to maximize the pathos.  Nott eschews this approach, opting for a slightly faster (and, really, more apt) tempo and exchanging deep angst for lyricism, restraint and a touch of nostalgia – a look backward at life that in no way diminishes the past but does not make it seem a deep well of sorrow.  Some may find this a rather mild reading, lacking in the heart-on-the-sleeve anguish of other performances; others will discover that the restraint makes the emotional content of the movement even more intense, especially when the entire work ends in a spirit of understated but powerful resignation.  By any measure, this is an excellent Ninth, even if it is somewhat outside the mainstream of current readings – or maybe because it is unlike many others.  Nott is certainly an excellent Mahler conductor, and the remaining performances in his cycle of the symphonies are likely to prove well worth waiting for.

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