November 27, 2013


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Toby Spence, tenor; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. LPO. $16.99.

Mahler: Lieder aus “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Wolfgang Rihm: Rainer Maria Rilke—4 Gedichte für Singstimme & Orchester. Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Bochumer Symphoniker conducted by Steven Sloane. CPO. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. DSO Live. $16.99.

     Gustav Mahler died at age 50, seven weeks before his 51st birthday, a fact that makes his splendid musical output – not to mention his tremendous accomplishments as a conductor and arranger – all the more remarkable. There are not very many Mahler works, but most of those he created have become so much a part of the standard repertoire that it is hard to realize how rarely heard they were as recently as the 1960s. Practically every conductor on the world stage now essays a Mahler symphony cycle, or at least dips into the composer’s work with an eye toward saying something new about it – the latter task made possible by the fact that there is so much packed into the composer’s powerful, large-scale compositions. It might be questioned whether Yannick Nézet-Séguin (born 1975) has the emotional maturity for Das Lied von der Erde: Mahler was only 48 when he wrote it but was already aware of the heart disease that would soon claim his life, and in many ways was old beyond his years. But Nézet-Séguin’s live February 2011 performance, newly released on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s own label, shows sure-handedness in the conducting and a fine sense of the structure and symphonic layout of this hybrid work (part symphony, part oratorio, part song cycle). Nézet-Séguin shapes the six individual sections carefully, bringing out both the work’s flowing lines and its jagged elements. And the orchestra plays with warmth and all the understanding befitting music with which major ensembles worldwide are now thoroughly familiar. The soloists are fine, showing emotional involvement in the music and singing their contrasting sections feelingly. Sarah Connolly is the better of the two, with a smooth, warm voice that nicely picks out the many chinoiserie elements of her first two songs and then progresses with considerable depth into Der Abschied (in which, however, she loses the forward impetus from time to time). Toby Spence has more enthusiasm than technique: he tends to sound shrill, especially in his high register, and is actually harsh at the beginning of Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde, although he soon rights himself. As a whole, this is a more-than-creditable performance that shows Nézet-Séguin to have considerable Mahler ability – which will no doubt develop over time as he delves more fully into the composer’s oeuvre.

     For a much better sense of Mahler’s vocal possibilities, an excellently sung CD featuring tenor Christoph Prégardien offers a daring program combining six selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (including Urlicht, which is usually heard only in the Second Symphony) with the four-song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and four songs by Wolfgang Rihm. The juxtaposition of Mahler’s orchestral songs with Rihm’s – indeed, with anybody else’s – is highly unusual, and it is only to be expected that the non-Mahler songs will pale in comparison to Mahler’s. But something else happens on this fine CPO disc. Even though Des Knaben Wunderhorn is mostly early Mahler, some of the settings have many forward-looking elements – and when Urlicht ends and the CD proceeds immediately to the Rihm songs, which are placed between the two Mahler sequences, Mahler’s stretching of tonality and his very personal use of the human voice come into sharper focus. The Rihm songs, remarkably, end up shining considerable light on Mahler’s – and when, after the Rihm sequence (which dates to 2000-04), Prégardien begins Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Mahler’s first song cycle (1884-85), both the contrast and the comparable elements are striking. Steven Sloane’s highly sensitive conducting, and the excellent playing of the Bochumer Symphoniker, have a great deal to do with this disc’s success, but Prégardien’s handling of the vocal elements is the primary factor. Prégardien is as comfortable with the Aesopian satire of Lob des hohen Verstandes and the delicacy of Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht (despite some slight breath-control issues) as with the intensity of Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (which gets a particularly striking reading). And Prégardien, to whom Rihm dedicated the voice-and-piano version of the Rilke songs and who gave the first performance of them in their voice-and-orchestra form, handles the spare aesthetics of Rihm – which well match Rilke’s complexly knotted thoughts – as well as he manages Mahler’s broader, deeper and more emotionally intense music. Mahler’s music generally does not mix particularly well with anyone else’s, but the juxtaposition of Mahler and Rihm on this CD is surprisingly revelatory.

     Revelations are harder to come by in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra recording of the Sixth Symphony on the orchestra’s own label. The problem with Mahler as a fixture of modern concerts is that the familiarity of the music can all too easily lead to pedestrian performances. Jaap van Zweden’s is better than that, but it is scarcely inspired. For every very fine touch (the intensity of the first hammer blow in the finale, for example), there is something that does not quite measure up (e.g., the bland handling of the main march rhythm of the first movement). The Dallas ensemble is a good orchestra but not a great one: it can handle Mahler, but the strain tends to show, most noticeably in the brass. Van Zweden’s interpretation is short on emotional punch: the entire first movement lacks a strong and effective contrast between the march elements and the beautiful theme representing Mahler’s wife, Alma; and it feels less propulsive than it should for maximum effect. The Scherzo is all right but, again, not as intense as it can be; as a result, the slow movement, although very beautifully played, provides less of a contrast than it ideally should. And while van Zweden gets the scale of the finale right, he does not hold it together particularly well: the dark elements (except for that first hammer blow, which is much stronger than the second – van Zweden omits the third) evoke more pathos than tragedy. There is nothing major wrong with this (+++) performance, and music lovers who have heard the Dallas Symphony in concert may even consider it a worthy souvenir of the orchestra. But just as there are plenty of adequate-but-ordinary performances of the masterpieces of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and other standard-repertoire symphonists, so there are nowadays of Mahler. This Sixth is fine, but ultimately not nearly as special as Mahler can be.

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