November 16, 2017


Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Orla Boylan, Celena Shafer and Amy Owens, sopranos; Charlotte Hellekant and Tamara Mumford, mezzo-sopranos; Barry Banks, tenor; Markus Werba, baritone; Jordan Bisch, bass; Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Choristers of the Madeleine Choir School, and Utah Symphony conducted by Thierry Fischer. Reference Recordings. $29.98 (2 SACDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Utah Symphony conducted by Thierry Fischer. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).

     It is ironic that although Mahler famously said that a symphony must be like the world, a comment usually interpreted to mean that a symphony should contain pretty much everything to be found in the world at large, all his symphonies can justifiably be seen as containing a single thing at their core: Mahler himself. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” Walt Whitman wrote, and in fact Mahler did exactly the same thing, presenting intensely personal thoughts, beliefs, worries and fears in every one of his symphonies; the works’ differing emphases and conclusions may be thought of as showing alternative outcomes of the composer’s internal struggles and hopes. It would not do to force too close a parallel between Mahler’s life at the time of a particular symphony and the structure of that work, however, for the symphonies explore and are reflective of his inner being, not his external circumstances. Seeing these gigantic and meticulously colored canvases – they really do resemble paintings in sound – in this highly personal way gives sensitive listeners entry to the emotional core of the music, a key to exploring the techniques Mahler used to express so many parts of his multilayered and often deeply troubled, conflicted personality. The extremely personal nature of the music is also a key to its sound: Mahler employed vast numbers of instruments, in symphony after symphony, but invariably used them much of the time with chamber-music delicacy. The grand and glorious or gloomy climaxes are there, to be sure, but the individual voices, the small groupings of color within the larger splashes of intensity, are every bit as important as the massed sound that Mahler drew forth from the many performers on whom he called to express himself to the world.

     Because of the unique sonic quality of Mahler’s music, the exceptional importance of getting both the quiet passages and the huge, noisy and sometimes deliberately crude ones right, the recording quality of Mahler performances is exceptionally important, most definitely so in the case of his Eighth, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” which really does require something close to that number of performers. This symphony is ideally suited for the superb recording techniques that are always in evidence on Reference Recordings releases, and the new two-disc set featuring a live 2016 performance directed by Thierry Fischer is an exemplary case of recording quality wedded to music that begs to be treated with the extraordinary aural care it receives here. The technical details do not matter: what counts is the exceptional evenness of sound from the start of this 90-minute spectacular to the end, with the quietest passages having great clarity and the loudest, which are very loud indeed, resounding with tremendous intensity but never sounding the slightest bit muddy or indistinct. This is a performance that strongly contrasts the essentially “masculine” striving of the opening Veni, creator spiritus with the essentially “feminine” acceptance and integration of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, which is Mahler’s most operatic music and in this reading truly does sound like a vast opera score (with no fewer than eight solo voices, more than in many operas). One of the many interesting questions for conductors is how to handle the very start of this symphony – whether the words Veni, creator spiritus at the opening, just after the organ’s pedal point, should be framed as a plea for the Creator Spirit to come or as a command. Fischer leans toward the “command” side, setting a tone of strength from the music’s start and allowing himself considerable latitude, in the work’s second part, to bring forth all the warmth and expressiveness that Mahler offers there. The soloists are uniformly fine, despite the use of two mezzo-sopranos rather than contraltos (these voices’ solo sections are short and comparatively undistinguished). The major solos in this work belong to the tenor, who must be heard over the chorus without having his voice crack, and the bass, whose wide leaps are, to say the least, challenging; Barry Banks and Jordan Bisch acquit themselves admirably. The young singers of the Madeleine Choir School handle their parts well, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – a vast and amazing instrument of its own that can at times slip into ponderousness rather than grandeur – here sounds committed, strong and sensitive. Listeners so inclined can certainly nitpick Fischer’s performance, which occasionally becomes rather matter-of-fact and in the Faust scenes loses forward momentum now and then. But in its totality, this is an excellently conceived reading featuring first-rate soloists and chorus, an uplifting and convincing rendition of Mahler’s brilliant affirmation of the essentially positive nature of always striving for knowledge and creative expression. This is Mahler himself at his most optimistic, tapping his belief that always seeking the highest heights will one day bring the human spirit to the summit of experience.

     Matters Mahlerian are more troubled and far less certain of positive resolution through much of the Fifth Symphony, but here too there is an eventual affirmation (a chorale rather than choral one) of consonance and hope that makes possible emergence from the inner abyss of the work’s Part I (the first two movements). The new BR Klassik recording featuring the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons makes this emergence from despair, through warmth and love, to brightness, particularly clear. The linchpin of the symphony, very oddly, is the very unusual central Scherzo, which stands alone as Part II of the work and which fluctuates between naïve Ländler elements and something more serious and introspective – as if pulling the symphony along a trajectory from the intensity and darkness of Part I toward the warmth, beauty and eventual positive outcome of Part III (the fourth and fifth movements). It is hard to miss the intensely personal core of this particular symphony, whose gorgeous fourth movement, Adagietto, is almost a standalone piece for its lovely, uncomplex beauty and spare scoring – indeed, it is often performed separately from the symphony to which it belongs, being offered as a sort of “love poem,” which is how Mahler regarded it when sending it to his wife, Alma. Yet it is only in context that the movement truly fulfills its function of turning turbulence (Part I) and thoughtful complexity (Part II) toward something far more heartfelt, driven by and toward the “eternal feminine” that Mahler was later to celebrate through Goethe’s words in the Eighth Symphony. A firm sense of structural integrity is absolutely necessary for a successful performance of Mahler’s Fifth, and Jansons certainly has that. The gloom of the opening funeral march and storm-tossed second movement give way only reluctantly in the Scherzo to something less visceral and more thoughtful; the third movement’s upbeat ending connects to only a small degree to the overflowing beauty of the fourth; and the comparatively staid, moderately paced final Rondo then builds gradually to a chorale effusion that is allowed to become the work’s capstone – standing in contrast to the chorale of the second movement, which tries to emerge from darkness but soon collapses onto itself, as if it is just too soon to experience any sort of satisfying emergence from despair. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is a great one for playing Mahler, weighty without being heavy in sound, and especially strong in the brass; and Jansons knows how to bring out the ensemble’s great warmth (the strings are gorgeous in the Adagietto) while still producing the cragginess that Part I of the symphony demands. This is a well-thought-out and very effective reading of Mahler’s Fifth that produces something like a sigh of relief at its apotheosis, a feeling that listeners – like Mahler himself – have come through a long and difficult journey and arrived at a highly satisfactory emotional conclusion.

     Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, in the four-movement version in which it is almost always heard, is far more straightforward in approach despite its many innovative features and felicities of expression. Super-high-quality sound is less an absolute necessity for the effectiveness of this symphony than for that of the Eighth, but the Reference Recordings SACD showcasing the interpretation by the same orchestral forces as in the Eighth – Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony – nevertheless possesses the best possible sonic presentation, and it does make a difference in the impact of this brash, noisy and highly effective youthful work. The essential inward focus of all Mahler’s symphonies is already apparent even in this one’s fairly straightforward arc that leads eventually to a very big climax indeed. And the musical techniques that Mahler would later refine and develop are all here too: the songfulness (although we would later stop using direct quotations from his song cycles), the warmth, the sweetness, the sarcasm, the dips into bitterness, the juxtaposition of the mundane with the otherworldly, and the confluence of the mundane with the otherworldly – as in the very opening of the First, which is supposed to be a kind of “awakening of nature” scene but whose initial very high A on violins and violas gives the beginning a distinctly and distinctively otherworldly character. Even Mahler’s later notion of “parts,” crucial to both the Fifth and Eighth, was already present in the First, albeit only in early versions of the work. Still, the lack of an explicit label does not prevent listeners, led by Fischer’s well-paced and strongly rhythmic reading, from perceiving the First as falling into two distinct halves, the first the kind of celebratory striding-forth of the of first two movements, the second becoming distinctly darker and weirder as the strains of Bruder Martin (“Frère Jacques”) and the street-music sound of klezmer melodies become, with the crashing opening of the finale, a very deep and dark place indeed – from which abyss the music slowly emerges after, Beethoven-like, recalling and rejecting elements of the earlier movements (including a back-reference to the discarded Blumine). It is quite clear that the Utah Symphony being led by Fischer is an altogether smoother, better-balanced orchestra than the one directed by Maurice Abravanel (1903-1993) in the first recording ever made of all Mahler’s symphonies by an American orchestra. Abravanel’s pioneering spirit with this music has given way to a time in which Mahler is very much a part of the standard repertoire – and this allows conductors, including Fischer, to bring a personal imprimatur to the works, which in Fischer’s case means showing clearly just how personal these musical statements are. It does indeed turn out that Mahler’s symphonies are like the world, to the extent that each of us carries our own experience of the world with us at all times and expresses it in the most-cogent language we can command.

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