June 14, 2018


Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. Altomonte Orchester St. Florian conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $34.99 (2 SACDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. SWR Classic. $12.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

     Famous conductors of the past were well-known for putting their personal imprimatur on the works they led, sometimes subsuming the composers’ intentions within the conductors’ own worldview. Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, Leonard Bernstein – these names and others call up specific styles, specific approaches to music that go beyond the more-standardized (if often exceptionally well-played) versions of music conducted by most of today’s orchestra leaders. But there are exceptions to standardization, even today, often when a particular conductor has a special interest in and affinity for the works of one composer and leads them with an unusual degree of insight. This is the case with Rémy Ballot and Bruckner: all the symphonies released to date as Gramola SACD recordings are utterly unlike performances by anyone else, so distinctive as to be instantly recognizable. Ballot’s Bruckner sequence is emerging at a snail’s pace, one symphony per year, and in an exceptionally strange order that clearly reflects the conductor’s personal preferences: No. 3 was released first, then No. 8, No. 9, and No. 6. And now we have Ballot’s version of No. 5, which is every bit as distinguished and distinctive as the others – and requires every bit as great a rethinking (and re-feeling) of the work on the part of listeners. Bruckner’s Fifth is by any measure a strange symphony, a highly contrapuntal work with the composer’s only slow first-movement introduction and his only Scherzo in sonata form. It is also a work whose climax is reserved for the very end of the finale, literally the last minute or so, with everything that comes before building to the monumental conclusion – an extraordinary challenge to conductors. This helps explain the long-discredited rewrite by conductor Franz Schalk, used at the work’s first performance in 1894: Schalk reorchestrated the symphony to sound more Wagnerian, significantly truncated the sprawling last movement, and added triangle, cymbals and an offstage brass band to the conclusion to make it abundantly clear that here was the climax toward which the work was building all along. Wrongheaded Schalk may have been, but understandably so: this is a very difficult work to absorb in the terms intended by Bruckner. Ballot has certainly absorbed it, though. All Ballot’s readings are expansive to a point that would approach bloat if they were not so beautifully handled, so sensitive to every nuance of each score, so carefully balanced and paced. Ballot’s Bruckner Fifth runs a remarkable 88 minutes. This is a symphony that typically lasts 70 to 75 minutes, and in one notable recent recording (by Mario Venzago, another conductor with a highly personalized view of this composer) zips by in 60. But Ballot’s reading never plods and never feels stretched. Instead, from the pizzicato opening to the monumental conclusion, the work sounds as if it is being assembled, brick by brick and stone by stone, like a skyward-mounting cathedral eventually topped by a spire that reaches for the heavens. That is in fact not a bad image for this work, which the deeply religious Bruckner informally called his “Fantastic” symphony. Ballot appears to have thought the work through in reverse order, fully comprehending the fugal, multithemed finale that ends with a splendid chorale in which the first movement’s first theme returns to conclude the piece. Everything that Ballot does builds, as it should, to this climactic moment: the majesty with which the whole symphony opens, the extended second movement whose thematic material returns almost verbatim (although of course at different speed) in that unusual Scherzo, and then the complex and elaborate finale – which opens in the same way and at the same tempo as the first movement, then broadens the work’s canvas dramatically for nearly half an hour before returning to its first-movement roots. The Altomonte Orchester St. Florian plays with unerring attentiveness for Ballot, who insists on the importance of Buckner’s inner voices even as he elegantly frames and juxtaposes the primary themes. Listening to Ballot’s Bruckner Fifth requires absorption into a different sense of time from what is typical in hearing symphonies: Ballot has the work envelop listeners, to such an extent that only when the audience breaks into applause at the end is it clear that this is a recording of a live performance – everything has been whisper-quiet throughout, and that quietude, physical and emotional and psychological, is exactly what Ballot requires for full appreciation of his interpretation. Once again he here delivers an extraordinary listening experience that connects those who hear it with Bruckner’s ethos in a way that stands out quite clearly from that of any other contemporary Bruckner conductor.

     Unlike Ballot and Bruckner, Kirill Kondrashin and Mahler do not seem inextricably intertwined. But Kondrashin’s 1981 performance of Mahler’s Sixth, now available as an SWR Classic release, nevertheless offers some highly personal moments that showcase Kondrashin’s particular skill with this music. This is a very late Kondrashin recording, dating to the last year of the conductor’s life: he lived from 1914 to 1981. Kondrashin has been somewhat underrated ever since, being primarily known for his accompaniment of Glenn Gould in the pianist’s spectacular reading of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. In fact, Kondrashin was a versatile and well-rounded maestro whose readings inevitably included carefully calibrated touches that helped listeners absorb the music in new ways. That is certainly the case with this Mahler Sixth. Already in Mahler’s lifetime, this symphony was being called the “Tragic,” but in Kondrashin’s view, it would more appropriately be designated the “Dramatic.” It is the underlying drama of the work, from its first-movement march through to the three hammer blows of fate in the finale (all of which Kondrashin includes, although some conductors omit the third), that Kondrashin emphasizes. In so doing, he affirms the symphony’s structure as being best with the Scherzo placed second. Mahler could never quite make up his mind whether this movement should come second (thus tending to expand a mood already set in the opening movement) or third (thereby introducing and adding to the already-extended finale). Kondrashin’s placement of the Scherzo second makes this sequence of movements seem definitive: here the first and second movements together are not much longer than the finale alone, lending the work an arch-like balance with the Andante moderato third movement as its central point. Kondrashin’s performance is scarcely lacking in emotion – his handling of the gorgeous second theme of the first movement is especially notable – but he does not try to bring out any Tchaikovsky-like pathos in the symphony and, indeed, does not appear to find anything like that in it. There is a stateliness, a sturdiness in this Mahler Sixth, a kind of Ein Heldenleben quality that, however, concludes with the heroic figure overcome by the tribulations of life – almost literally hammered down by fate. The remastered analog recording of the Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden is not quite as warm and full as listeners may wish, but the orchestra’s playing is first-rate, and the comparative coolness of the sound actually adds to Kondrashin’s dramatic-but-not-deeply-tragic approach to the music. Although this is unlikely to be most listeners’ first choice as a recording of Mahler’s Sixth, it is an interesting and very worthy performance that many lovers of this music will want to own for the insights it offers into the symphony itself and into Kondrashin as a conductor.

     The sound quality is far better on a new BIS SACD featuring Mahler’s Sixth performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. Indeed, this recording is something of a sonic spectacular: the single disc contains Vänskä’s full 87-minute performance, which may be a record length for a compact disc – they are usually limited to 80 minutes or just a tad more, after which quality deteriorates noticeably. Not so here: there is not even a smidgen of quality loss, which is quite an accomplishment for the engineers and may set a new standard for the release of Mahler’s works – which are often just a bit over what has been considered to be the 80-minute limit. Sound quality aside, though, it is reasonable to wonder why Vänskä’s recording is so drawn-out as to need this special treatment – for example, Kondrashin’s runs just over 68 minutes, although that is admittedly on the faster-than-usual side for a performance of Mahler’s Sixth. It is the sheer length of Vänskä’s interpretation in which there lies one aspect, by no means the only one, of personalization in this recording. It is worth remembering that while Mahler famously told Sibelius that a symphony should include the whole world, what Mahler’s symphonies really contain – collectively if not individually – is “the whole Mahler.” A sense of the expansiveness of Mahler’s personality, the heights he sought to scale and the tragedies he experienced, is what Vänskä seems to be trying to convey in his very broad reading of the Sixth. This means that Vänskä looks at the symphony not in the context of the rather happy time when Mahler wrote it (1903-04) but in terms of the composer’s overall life, particularly the later years – in which a series of personal and professional tragedies steadily ground him down. This is clear from the very outset of Vänskä’s reading, in a first movement that sounds a great deal like a “dead march” akin to that in Mahler’s Fifth. The music slogs along, its brass calls and dissonances strongly emphasized, with the peaceful scene symbolized by the cowbells midway through the movement seeming more like a naïve wish for a childlike heaven (along the lines of the Fourth) than like a temporary Alpine respite from the movement’s conflicts. Indeed, Vänskä almost stops the music entirely here – a curious decision that is as personal an approach as possible, and that makes the resumption of the martial music quite startling. Vänskä then places the slow movement second, an approach whose difficulty this performance shows quite clearly: the slow pace of the first movement means the Andante moderato provides no respite from what has come before but rather presents the continuation of a very similar pulse. The playing is very beautiful, but any contrast of mood with the first movement is largely absent: by the end of this movement, Vänskä’s Sixth seems already to have stretched, if not to infinity, then certainly to a great extent. Structured this way, Mahler’s Sixth splits into two parts: the first and second movements have a very similar feeling, as do the third and fourth. Vänskä retains his slow tempos throughout, however, and this renders parts of the Scherzo flaccid rather than heavy (Wuchtig is Mahler’s designation). All these decisions converge in a final movement in which there are some very fine elements, including an opening that is more intense than anything offered earlier by Vänskä; some questionable choices, such as the omission of the third hammer blow – an approach admittedly taken by many conductors, but one that limits the narrative power of the symphony, especially in a performance such as this one; and some matters that simply do not work, such as Vänskä’s slowdowns to the point of sclerosis, which vitiate the power of other portions of the movement. A highly personal interpretation of a highly personal symphony, Vänskä’s (+++) Mahler Sixth is no more likely to be most listeners’ first choice of a recording than is Kondrashin’s version – for very different reasons. What these two distinctive and highly dissimilar readings show is just how personal Mahler’s music, like Bruckner’s, inherently is, and just how many ways conductors’ own personalities can be brought to bear in presenting the material to audiences.

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