October 10, 2019
(++++) OLD SCHOOL AND NEW
Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Suzanne Danco, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Josef Krips. Cameo Classics. $14.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
In the 1950s and early 1960s, before Mahler’s music had become widely accepted and part of conductors’ and orchestras’ standard repertoire, there were, broadly speaking, two schools of thought about how to perform it. The Bruno Walter approach was emotion-centered, flexible in tempo, broad in conception and detail-oriented. The Leonard Bernstein approach was intense and dramatic, driven and penetrating, not always precise in detail but offering at all times a conceptual context for all the turmoil of the material. There were other conductors of some note performing Mahler at this time – Bernard Haitink, Maurice Abravanel – and there were a few who offered his music rarely but with unusual thoughtfulness. Those included Kirill Kondrashin and Josef Krips. Krips (1902-1974) was never considered a major Mahler advocate, but his view of the Fourth Symphony in a January 1957 performance that is now available on the Cameo Classics label shows just how carefully he thought about and presented Mahler when he did turn his attention to this music. Krips was always comfortable with letting music breathe, allowing the lines to extend and extend again, often resulting in performances of great expansiveness that, despite their length, only rarely seemed slow: his Schubert Symphony No. 9, for example, typically lasted more than an hour. This Mahler Fourth also takes an hour, and it is a remarkably immersive experience throughout – marred, alas, by an unusually noisy audience (the recording comes from a live BBC broadcast), but nevertheless pulling listeners into Mahler’s sound world to an exceptional degree. If one were to assign colors to Mahler’s music, it would mostly be multihued, with slashes of brightness against a frequently dark background – except in the Fourth Symphony, which almost throughout shines a nearly perfect sky-blue. Krips gets this exactly right in his leisurely pacing and careful attention to details of Mahler’s marvelous orchestration. The first movement’s sleigh bells, for example, are just prominent enough without drawing too much attention to themselves. And the second movement’s scordatura tuning of the solo violin is unusually effective at Krips’ pace: there is a level of eeriness and disquiet here that rarely appears in other performances. As a result, the very extended third movement genuinely counteracts the feelings generated by the second, and the gradual ascent to heaven comes through both as a struggle and as an inevitability. And the finale, around which Mahler built the whole symphony, really does crown the work: Suzanne Danco (1911-2000) sounds just childlike enough to make this child’s view of heaven fit with all that has led to it. With a pure tone and limited vocal vibrato, she delivers the words with apt naïveté; and the orchestra, which has played exceptionally throughout, carries along the illustrative music – and the recollections of material from earlier in the symphony – to truly moving effect. This is an old-fashioned approach to Mahler, placing him firmly in the realm of earlier Central European music – and for this specific symphony, it works wonderfully well.
Today’s conductors are much more likely to cut loose and focus on Mahler’s stormy, troubled side. And today’s orchestras are quite accustomed to playing Mahler, whose works are now firmly ensconced in the standard repertoire – so the quality of performances is, by and large, very high. Certainly the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä handles Mahler’s First with all the precision, intensity and attention to the work’s varying emotions that listeners could want – and with excellent focus on the minute details of Mahler’s careful orchestration, brought forth in exceptional SACD sound on a new BIS recording. Having already delivered impressive-sounding but sometimes rather quirky recordings of Mahler’s Second, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Vänskä here offers a pull-out-all-the-stops Mahler First that accentuates the numerous contrasts within the music. The very opening of the first movement, for example, is so quiet and so extended that the single note A seems to transport listeners immediately to a world beyond reality, or one in which reality is perceived with far more clarity than usual. This opening is a brilliant stroke by Mahler and is always effective, but Vänskä gets even more than usual from it by the evenness with which the orchestra’s strings hold the note: it is almost as if the sound is electronically generated. The result is that the jaunty main theme, when it appears, offers an even-stronger-than-usual contrast to the initial tone painting. This performance is full of such touches: comparison and contrast are everywhere. The differing qualities of the start and middle of the third movement, for example, are accentuated here, and the end of that movement slides quietly into near-inaudibility before the beginning of the finale slams the ears with even more strength and sheer volume than usual. Indeed, the emphasis Vänskä places on contrast is at times almost too strong: when the initial outburst of the finale subsides into quiet for the recollection of the (now-absent) Blumine movement, for example, the music pretty much descends into stasis. This is obviously a deliberate effect on Vänskä’s part, but it is one that undercuts the forward motion of a movement that is always difficult to hold together cohesively. On balance, though, Vänskä here offers a highly convincing reading that is very much in the style of Mahler conducting today: assertive and confident in the interpretation of music that it is now fair to assume will already be familiar to most listeners and that therefore bears rethinking and reconsideration – especially when this nicely played – very well.