May 01, 2014


Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1-7; Three Late Fragments. BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds. Chandos. $37.99 (3 CDs).

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14. Gal James, soprano; Alexander Vinogradov, baritone; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $9.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $18.99.

     Muscular and sinewy, the Sibelius symphony cycle conducted by John Storgårds for Chandos combines near-intuitive understanding of Sibelius’ worldview as expressed in these works with excellent playing by the BBC Philharmonic that brings out elegance after elegance in the scoring. Warm and expansive readings of Nos. 1 and 2, which place Sibelius firmly in the 19th-century Romantic tradition but also show him starting to burst its bounds, lead to an opening movement of No. 3 that fairly strides forward into new territory, giving this less-played symphony a position of significantly greater importance in Sibelius’ music than it usually receives. The Storgårds approach is like that, reconsidering the relative position of each symphony within the cycle and showcasing elements of each – inner voices, intriguing harmonies, unusual aspects of instrumentation – that usually get less attention than this conductor gives them. The seriousness of this cycle is undoubted, its effect exhilarating: listeners who choose to hear the symphonies in order (a bit of a chore, since their arrangement is non-sequential in order to get the whole cycle on three CDs) will find the contrast between the bright and involving No. 3 and the strange, unsettled and distancing No. 4 particularly telling. No. 5 grows organically from start to finish, and the soaring theme of the finale – likely inspired by a flight of swans that Sibelius saw – rises particularly elegantly here. The outdoorsy expansiveness of this symphony stands in stark contrast with the decidedly inward-looking No. 6, which flows gently and poetically in Storgårds’s interpretation, finally wafting away like a sigh. And No. 7 neatly straddles the line between symphony and fantasia, with Storgårds shaping it carefully, paying attention to its structural elements while also letting it flow freely and warmly. This set also includes a small bonus in the form of three symphonic fragments that may have been planned for the long-sought, probably destroyed Eighth Symphony. They are labeled for the Helsinki University Library: HUL 1325, HUL1326/9 and HUL1327/2, and all have a definite whiff of Sibelius about them – but are so short that any plans the composer may have had for their use are impossible to determine. (There is also a fourth fragment, HUL 1326/10, that has been recorded on BIS but is not played here.) The reality is that the seven symphonies are almost certainly all we will ever have from Sibelius, and having them in performances as ravishing as Storgårds’ makes the cycle seem quite complete and very meaningful.

     Vasily Petrenko’s sensitivity to the music of Shostakovich rivals that of Storgårds to the works of Sibelius. The penultimate release in Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle for Naxos – only No. 13 has yet to appear – is at the same excellent level as all the others. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 is closer to a Mahler song cycle than any of the composer’s other symphonies, but without the structural unity that Mahler brought to, say, Das Lied von der Erde. Shostakovich here sets 11 poems about death, considering the end of life from many perspectives – from the legendary (“Lorelei”) to the highly personal (“At the Santé Prison”). Petrenko’s soloists are particularly well-suited to the music, with Gal James’ slightly shrill soprano fitting the texts well and the deep, resonant baritone of Alexander Vinogradov slipping warmly and firmly into the music from start to finish. But what Petrenko does that sets his reading of this symphony on such a high plane is to regard the work as a true symphony, accepting the groupings of poems as being, in effect, symphonic movements, and bringing out very cleanly the elements that appear here and are clearly symphonic in Shostakovich’s non-vocal works – the very beginning of “On Watch,” for example. This is a deeply pessimistic work by most standards, but Petrenko has an interesting way of drawing some level of comfort from it – not the comfort of some sort of life after death (in which Shostakovich did not believe), but an affirmation of the essential humanity of all people, united through their inevitable facing of death in some way and at some time. Petrenko’s performance is a well-organized and deeply moving one, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra once again playing with eloquence and understanding, and the result is a Shostakovich Fourteenth that stands at the same level as the other entries in this series – and that is a very high level indeed.

     The playing of the Stuttgarter Philharmoniker is equally elegant and sumptuous in Gabriel Feltz’s new Dreyer Gaido recording of Mahler’s First Symphony. But Feltz makes a number of missteps in interpretation that result in a (+++) rating for the disc, despite the quality of the orchestra and recording. The first movement raises hopes for the overall performance quite high, with its delicacy, fine pacing , sense of style and careful instrumental balance. But then things go awry. The second movement starts very slowly indeed, rendering its central section much less of a contrast than it should be – and then the last part is taken quite quickly rather than as a reprise of the opening, spoiling the entire structure, which after all is that of a scherzo with trio. The third movement also wavers in tempo in ways that Mahler did not call for, and the finale is even more capricious in its frequent rubato, tempo modifications where none should be, and Feltz’s overall attempt to extract strong emotion from the music by changing its pace and flow frequently and significantly. Although a conductor’s interpretations often include elements not written into the music by the composer, this is far less justified in Mahler than elsewhere: Mahler was himself a highly skilled and prominent conductor, and he was perfectly capable of requesting special effects and tempo changes when he wanted them. Indeed, many of his scores are littered with meticulous instructions on how to perform them – and while a conductor may have good reason to ignore some of what Mahler indicated (because instruments and playing styles are different today), there is little reason to make wholesale emendations of a score as carefully constructed as that of Mahler’s First. Feltz has some good ideas about emphasis and sectional balance in this interpretation, but he undermines his own intentions by turning the performance into one in which the focus is more on the conductor than on the music.

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