November 27, 2019


Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 4, arranged by Erwin Stein. Isabel Soccoja, mezzo-soprano; Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain conducted by Daniel Kawka. Musicaphon. $14.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Anu Komsi, soprano; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR Music. $8.99.

     Recordings sometimes hang out in the electronic equivalent of a vault for years before they are released to the public, which means a “new” recording can at times be one that is not so new. This raises the question of how well a particular performance, especially a live one, stands up over time. The Mahler First conducted by Mariss Jansons, featuring the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, has been released as a new recording by BR Klassik, but it is actually a live performance from 2007. And there is no apparent reason for the very lengthy delay in bringing out the CD – indeed, most conductors will say that their conception of music changes over time, and a live performance from a dozen years ago would not necessarily reflect their thinking about the same material today. There is nothing particularly puzzling about the performance itself: it is comparatively straightforward, well-paced and exceptionally well played, with the first-rate sectional balance that is always characteristic of this excellent orchestra. Jansons does especially well with the first movement, whose smoothness of sound is notable, and the third, in which the contrasts of mood and slight piquancy of approach come through clearly. The finale tends to meander a bit too much here – always a potential issue with this movement, especially the portion that “quotes” from the discarded Blumine movement that Mahler originally placed second in the initial five-movement structure of the symphony. But toward the latter part of the finale, matters tighten appreciably, and the final climactic section is very impressive indeed. This is by any account a very fine reading of the symphony, if not a particularly adventurous or exploratory one – and its very lack of unusual elements or approaches makes it all the more puzzling that it took so long for the performance to appear on disc.

     The question of whether or not something wears well is different with a new Musicaphon release, relating here not entirely to the date of the performance (2014) but, more significantly, to the music itself. For this is not Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 but the arrangement that Erwin Stein made of it for Arnold Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen, that very bold attempt to present then-modern music to Weimar Republic audiences using whatever modest forces could be assembled for 117 concerts between February 1919 and December 1921. Whatever the financial exigencies of the time may have been – it was hyperinflation that eventually killed the whole project – there is no doubt that the careful musical arrangements and transcriptions were done extremely skillfully, but for a very specific time, place, and set of performers and instruments. It is certainly justifiable to ask whether Stein’s recasting of Mahler’s Fourth for a complement of 12 instrumentalists (playing, among other things, piano and harmonium) has any value a century later. Despite the manifest inadequacies of the instrumentation – which, among many other things, completely omits brass – the answer, rather surprisingly, is yes. The reason is that Mahler used his large orchestral forces sparingly in this symphony (and others), creating chamber-music-like sections by deploying small instrumental groups and reserving the full orchestra for massive climaxes. Therefore, the more-delicate portions of this, Mahler’s most filigreed symphony, emerge surprisingly effectively in Stein’s arrangement, and Daniel Kawka and the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain are quite sensitive to them. This is a reading that is evenly paced and pays close attention to the symphony’s rhythmic qualities. Kawka clearly realizes that the whole symphony is designed as a prelude to its vocal finale (which was the first movement written), managing to build everything toward the concluding child’s view of heaven. And the sparse instrumentation draws particular attention to the straining of tonality and other forward-looking elements that attracted Schoenberg and his followers to the music. Nevertheless, this is strictly a recording for Mahler enthusiasts, because neither Stein’s work nor Kawka’s is entirely adequate to the music. When the climaxes do occur, the inevitable weaknesses of Stein’s arrangement come through all too clearly: in the first movement, the grand sound about 10 minutes in becomes a nearly unintelligible cacophony, and the “opening of the gates of Heaven” in the third movement is far less impressive and celebratory than Mahler intended. As for Kawka, he makes the peculiar decision to have the finale sung by a mezzo-soprano rather than a soprano, and Isabel Soccoja’s rich, creamy voice is entirely wrong for a song filled with childlike wonder about heavenly existence. Also, the microphone placement in the finale is such that Soccoja is more prominent than the entire instrumental complement, and the reverberation of the recording venue is such that it makes her voice more prominent still – resulting in a finale that is thoroughly out of balance, despite the sensitive handling of its instrumental component. So while much of what Stein did with Mahler’s Fourth stands up surprisingly well, this recording itself is a (+++) release that has many points of interest but combines them with a variety of disappointing elements.

     There are niceties and disappointments as well in another old-but-new recording of Mahler’s Fourth, this one a (+++) reissue by SWR Music of a 2005 live performance featuring Roger Norrington and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR. Norrington, now in his mid-80s, remains a fine conductor, but he was always more-effective in some repertoire than in other areas, and Mahler has never been his forte. The orchestra plays very well for him, and the smooth sound of the first movement and effective scordatura solo violin in the second are highlights of this reading. But Norrington seems impatient with Mahler, and that is a serious mistake, especially in this evenly paced and frequently placid symphony. Mahler knew just what tempos he wanted and just when he wanted them – he was, after all, a brilliant conductor himself – and it is quite unjustifiable to create unneeded and ill-sounding rubato in his music. But Norrington does just that, to a surprising and significant degree. The way he varies speed in the first movement, speeds up the end of the second, and rushes to the conclusion of the third, significantly undermines the beauty and emotionally communicative nature of the music. And the finale does not work at all, because soprano Anu Komsi delivers the words in an operatic and distinctly adult-sounding manner, complete with periodic emotional over-emphasis: this is not a child’s view of Heaven but an adult’s unsuccessful attempt to impose something “better,” or at least more mature, on the naïveté that Mahler wanted and that he wrote so clearly into the score. Interestingly, the total length of this performance is not especially short, but that is because when Norrington is not speeding up unnecessarily, he is slowing down too much – producing a reading that is not so much unattractive (it is beautifully played) as it is unsuccessful. This is one not-too-old performance that quickly outwears its welcome for anyone but a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the conductor.

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