January 30, 2020


Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Showpieces for Piano and Orchestra: Music by Richard Addinsell, Gershwin, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Paul Turok, Liszt, Duke Ellington, and Henry Litolff. Joshua Pierce, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Mahler’s symphonies have been in the standard repertoire for so long now, more than half a century, that their formerly assumed extraordinary performance difficulties have tended to disappear or at least be disregarded. Now, even semiprofessional orchestras will occasionally attempt them, and sometimes will even handle them quite well. But that does not change the fact that the works require exceptional virtuoso performances by musicians. It is just that the virtuosity is not the main point of the music. This is particularly evident in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, the sunniest of them all and arguably the shortest (the First is a bit shorter as a four-movement work but a bit longer if the original Blumine movement is included, as it sometimes is). The lightness, almost transparency of Mahler’s Fourth belies the extreme care that a conductor must take to contrast its chamber-music-like qualities with its occasional full-orchestra climaxes, which are all the more powerful because of their infrequency. The work mixes classical poise and delicacy with an avowedly Romantic temperament and some utterly gorgeous melodies, such as the beautifully lyrical, yearning one that appears within two minutes of the symphony’s beginning – a start that requires very judicious planning and balance to prevent the appealing sound of sleighbells from appearing to trivialize what comes afterwards. The notion that this entire symphony seems to be written in the “key” of sky blue (to adopt a notion from synesthesia) is not a new one, but its meaning is crucial to the work’s performance: in a nearly cloudless sky, barely perturbed even by a slightly strange intrusion (the scordatura violin in the second movement), the details of phrasing and emphasis stand out and are crucial to the work’s effect. Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra handle those details with exceptional sensitivity on a new SACD from BIS, abetted by exceptional sound quality that helps encapsulate the symphony’s important silences within a crystal-clear sound cocoon: for example, the pause before the last few measures of the first movement is a moment of extraordinary lucidity. Vänskä engages in more rubato than do most conductors of this symphony – a big risk and generally a questionable practice, since Mahler, a deservedly famous conductor himself, knew just how he wanted his symphonies to be paced. But in the vast majority of instances in this case, the tempo alterations work as Vänskä surely intends them to, emphasizing pinpoints of pacing and orchestration even though that de-emphasizes others. Conducting this way is itself a form of virtuosity, albeit one not necessarily obvious to listeners. Even when Vänskä’s choices here initially seem suspect – his very slow opening of the third movement, for example, turning the indicated Poco adagio into an out-and-out Adagio – they soon prove convincing, placed by the conductor at the service of a well-thought-through and very moving overview of the symphony. The climactic “opening of the gates of Heaven” is exceptional here: a triumphal affirmation after which the music quickly returns to a much quieter passage that truly sounds as if a newly admitted visitor is gazing about in utter wonder. The entire work is capped by a finale in which Vänskä and Carolyn Sampson take to heart Mahler’s insistence that the words be sung utterly without irony: Sampson’s voice has minimal vibrato and, as a result, a kind of childlike purity that is exactly right for this material. The sense of marvels that the words gently convey is matched by just-right orchestral accompaniment that leads to a final verse about heavenly music that is itself a marvel: this is indeed music of heavenly beauty that fades into ethereality and a sense of the eternal. This overall performance is one of the very best available recordings of Mahler’s Fourth – an essay in virtuoso interpretation that is all the more impressive for its subtlety.

     The virtuosity is far more direct, explicit and unsubtle on a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Joshua Pierce. This is an entire disc of show-stoppers, none with significant meaning or emotional punch but all designed as display pieces that demonstrate the pianist’s technical ability for the pleasure of the audience. That is a perfectly worthwhile goal: there is no reason that all music must be profound, and it is good that some of it is as superficial but thrilling as the eight works heard here. The CD opens with the Warsaw Concerto, written by Richard Addinsell (1904-1977) in near-perfect, non-parodistic Rachmaninoff style for a film called Dangerous Moonlight, to which Rachmaninoff himself declined to contribute music. Orchestrated by Roy Douglas, the work neatly encapsulates the grand neo-Romanticism of Rachmaninoff and is suitably heart-on-sleeve emotional (it serves, in part, a romantic role in the film). Next are Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” variations, which Pierce – a particularly accomplished interpreter of Gershwin – tosses off with aplomb and considerable spirit. Then another set of variations – Chopin’s on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni – offers more-substantial fare and a very different approach to the piano. Pierce seems just as comfortable here as he is with the century-later Gershwin, and so, for that matter, do Kirk Trevor and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, who accompany all the music on this CD with equal portions of supportiveness and apparent enjoyment. After the Chopin comes Saint-Saëns’ Caprice-Valse, Op. 76 (“Wedding Cake”), a delicious bit of fluff and frosting. It is followed by the world première recording of Ragtime Caprice by Paul Turok (1929-2012), a work based on Scott Joplin’s music although it does not (unlike an earlier Turok work) incorporate any of Joplin’s actual tunes. This sparkling offering is succeeded by another one that is equally heady: Liszt’s 1851 orchestration of Carl Maria von Weber’s Polonaise Brillante, Op. 72, which follows the structure of the original (a solo piano piece) fairly closely after an initial, very Lisztian and very much purely-for-display introduction. Pierce and Trevor next collaborate for the first release of New World A-Comin’ – a piece initially written by Duke Ellington for a radio documentary, then expanded by him into a 12-minute concerto, then arranged and edited by Maurice Peress. Like Addinsell’s music, it transcends its original purpose while retaining vestiges of it. The central, minor-key section, called “Gut Bucket” and containing everything from a series of “wrong” notes to a “blues” bit for piano, is a highlight. This for-fun-only CD concludes with just about the only piece still performed today by Henry Litolff (1818-1891), to whom Liszt dedicated his Piano Concerto No. 1 (1849). That work famously (indeed, at the time, notoriously) included a triangle – an instrument also prominent in the Litolff work heard here, which is from a concerto of his own, Concerto Symphonique No. 4 (1852). It is that work’s second-movement Scherzo. And even on a disc packed with encore-like pieces, this one stands out – not only for the high level of display it requires but also for the speed with which Litolff skillfully takes the music through a bewildering succession of keys that keep listeners’ ears (and possibly pianists’ fingers, although apparently not those of Pierce) quite uncertain about where things are going and what could possibly be coming next. Litolff was himself a piano virtuoso, and this movement indicates the gyrations of which he was capable – and will likely make listeners wish Litolff’s works were heard more often. That is not to be on this CD, however: the aim here is strictly to impress, to demonstrate a high level of skill in the service of music that may not be “great” but that serves its purpose – to delight and entertain – very well indeed.

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