December 29, 2016
(++++) NOT FOR HIS AGE, BUT FOR OUR TIME
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (version by Yoel Gamzou). International Mahler Orchestra conducted by Yoel Gamzou. Wergo. $18.99.
Mahler, arr. Schoenberg: Das Lied von der Erde; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano; Charles Reid, tenor; Roderick Williams, baritone; Attacca Quartet (Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violins; Luke Fleming, viola; Andrew Yee, cello) and Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.95.
Mahler: Five Rückert Songs; Ich ging mit Lust; Erinnerung; Scheiden und Meiden; Dvořák: Gypsy Songs, Op. 55; Sibelius: Six Songs. Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano; Brian Zeger, piano. Delos. $16.99.
More than a century after his death at the age of 50, Gustav Mahler seems more connected with the world than ever. His works seem always to have something new to say to succeeding generations of musicians and listeners, entrancing and enthralling anew as more performers and audiences have a chance to explore the exceptional modernity of his approach to music and the tremendous communicative power of his highly personal scores. All this is splendidly evident in Yoel Gamzou’s outstanding performance of his own “realization and elaboration,” as he puts it, of Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10. Gamzou is only 29 years old, and a few decades ago would have been thought too young to plumb Mahler’s depths fully – but this Wergo recording shows just how wrong such thinking would have been, because the connection between performer and composer here is a palpably strong one, and the performance by the International Mahler Orchestra is genuinely revelatory. Gamzou explains in the included booklet that he deliberately avoided looking into or listening to other completions of Mahler’s final symphony before starting his own work. There have been quite a few performing versions of the symphony, the most famous by Deryck Cooke and others by Joe Wheeler, Clinton A. Carpenter, et al. All have started from the premise that the work’s first movement and its third (“Purgatorio”) are complete and can be used as a kind of map to the other three movements. Not so Gamzou’s version. He touches up, in sometimes surprising ways, all the movements of the symphony, arguing that not even the first and third were truly finished; and he perceives in the work a philosophical arc and argument that he feels performers must follow for the work as a whole to make sense and have an effect that he clearly considers overpoweringly important. Whether or not listeners agree with Gamzou’s metaphysical take on Mahler’s Tenth, which gives short shrift to the intense autobiographical elements of the symphony in reaching for a much more universal connection, the fact is that Gamzou’s highly unusual interpretation is strikingly effective – no one who has heard other performing versions will expect the orchestration, the pacing, the instrumental emphasis, or the approaches to tempo that Gamzou takes. From his far-from-placid handling of “Purgatorio” to his attempt to take almost literally Mahler’s notion that, in the second Scherzo, “the devil dances with me,” Gamzou offers revelation after revelation in his design and performance of the symphony. Again and again, this is a reading that will make listeners sit up and take notice, all the more so if they are already familiar with earlier completions of the work. It is useless to talk about a “best” Mahler Tenth, since in many ways each performance using a different completion offers a very different piece of music. But it is certainly true that Gamzou’s reading will make listeners think as well as feel the music, and that this is a recording through which it truly seems that Mahler has reached across a century to connect anew with audiences and show them, show us, just how much he still has to say. The actual performance here was recorded in 2011, the hundred-year anniversary of the composer’s death. That seems entirely appropriate.
Even in his own time, though, Mahler’s music was perceived to reach out in ways that were wholly new and that needed a certain level of intermediation. His works were among those performed a number of times by Arnold Schoenberg’s short-lived but highly influential and important Society for Private Musical Performances – a set of gatherings where the audience members did not know in advance what music they would hear, only that it would be quite modern (for the time period of 1918-1921, when the society existed) and would be arranged for a small chamber ensemble, which was all the society’s modest budget could accommodate. Mahler and Schoenberg were mutual admirers (although Mahler admitted he appreciated but did not fully understand Schoenberg’s music); Schoenberg himself did some of the arrangements of Mahler’s works for the society. One such, a re-setting made in 1920 of Mahler’s 1896 song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, is for baritone and chamber group, and it is fascinating to hear on a new Naxos CD. With the exception of the third of the four songs, Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer, whose impact is significantly diminished with the reduced musical forces, the cycle sounds remarkably pointed and poignant, and not a little as if Schoenberg himself could have written (rather than just arranged) some parts of it. The intensity of emotion comes through with great clarity when the singer is front-and-center and not competing with a full orchestra – and it is worth remembering that Mahler, although he favored gigantic orchestral forces for most of his works, tended to treat those ensembles in chamber-music fashion most of the time. That is, he wanted a large complement of instruments so he could highlight individual sections of the orchestra (and sometimes individual instruments within the sections) to make his musical and emotional points – he reserved the full orchestral sound for times when he considered it really necessary. By and large, Schoenberg’s “reduction” of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen does not feel “reduced” at all: it sounds clear, strong and full of intensity. Baritone Roderick Williams is not ideally suited to the music – his upper register, in particular, is thin and often sounds as if he is about to slip into falsetto – but the strength of his emotional involvement with the text makes up for a great deal. And there is more, much more, here: around 1920, the Schoenberg society (although probably not Schoenberg himself) also created a chamber version of Das Lied von der Erde (1908-09), that magnificent flowering of Mahler’s late-in-life thinking and still a “vocal symphony” unlike any other. The chamber version of this monumental work is not really as satisfying as Mahler’s original or the chamber version of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The first song, for example, is largely lacking in sheer sonic impact, and the delicacy of the middle songs is not as effectively contrasted with the strength of the other comparatively short ones. However, Der Abschied, the final song – which alone lasts half as long as the whole work – comes through remarkably well here, thanks both to the sensitivity of the arrangement and to the very high quality of mezzo-soprano Susan Platt’s performance. Indeed, although tenor Charles Reid is quite fine in his three numbers, it is Platt who, in her three, gives this performance its emotional power – which is very considerable. Much credit must also go to JoAnn Falletta, the overall leader and shaper of the music, who once again shows her outstanding ability to delve into less-familiar repertoire and produce highly meaningful musical and emotional experiences. The recording itself is rather exceptional: it runs more than 81 minutes, breaking the usual 80-minute limit beyond which CD sound is thought to deteriorate, but it is clear, clean and excellently balanced throughout.
Mahler’s songs have an irresistible attraction for mezzo-sopranos, as well they should: together with the role of Carman, these songs offer just about the fullest opportunity for a mezzo’s probing virtuosity to be found in classical music. Jamie Barton is not quite as young as Yoel Gamzou – she is in her mid-thirties – but she is equally representative of a new generation of top-notch musicians to whom Mahler has much to say and through whom the performers have found they can communicate with great impact with audiences. Barton’s debut album, on Delos, offers eight Mahler songs with piano accompaniment: the five collected as Rückert-Lieder (even though they do not form a tightly knit cycle in the manner of, say, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen), and three taken from various other cycles. To all the songs, Barton brings a rich and creamy voice with an especially strong lower register, plus a sense of deep commitment in songs such as Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. Brian Zeger provides solid piano accompaniment, particularly in the Rückert-Lieder (which Mahler intended to have either piano or orchestral accompaniment). Mahler lovers will be very pleased with Barton’s handling of this material – but as so often occurs when a recording is focused mostly on a performer, Barton does not present an all-Mahler disc, instead veering off in a couple of other directions. Actually, the CD shows her voice to be beautifully suited to the music of Dvořák and Sibelius as well as to that of Mahler, so it accomplishes its purpose of highlighting her abilities and her sound. But the disc does lose some focus when Mahler’s German gives way to Dvořák’s seven-song cycle in Czech (a language with which Barton has no apparent difficulty) and then to six unconnected songs in Swedish (not Finnish) by Sibelius. The Dvořák songs are pleasantly melodic and warm, and have the expected rhythmic lilt associated with Gypsy music. The Sibelius songs – Op. 13, No. 2; Op. 36, Nos. 1, 4 and 5; and Op. 37, Nos. 4 and 5 – are more of a hodgepodge, pleasant-sounding enough but not as gripping thematically as the Mahler works or as musically warm as those by Dvořák. The three-composer mixture here shows in its own way what the single-composer focus of the Gamzou and Falletta discs shows as well: there is still more to be heard and learned from Mahler, in many ways and many forms, even after all these years and after so many performances.