May 06, 2021


Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Orquesta Filarmónica de Málaga conducted by José María Moreno Valiente. IBS Classical. $15.99.

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9. Concerto Budapest conducted by András Keller. Tacet. $24.99 (SACD).

Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op. 3 and Op. 6. Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Bernhard Forck and Georg Kallweit. PentaTone. $24.99 (3 CDs).

     Most classical-music lovers will think immediately of Beethoven if someone says “the fifth symphony,” but of course Beethoven’s is not the fifth – and the number five has some associations with other composers that are also very noteworthy (so to speak). Mahler’s Fifth, the midpoint of his symphonic oeuvre, is the first work in which he moved beyond the Wunderhorn connections that had previously been pervasive in his symphonies. Shorter than his Second or Third, longer than his First or Fourth, Mahler’s Fifth is a work of such varying moods and approaches that the composer stated that it was in three parts: the first two movements; the third; and the fourth and fifth. That is very much the way José María Moreno Valiente handles Mahler’s Fifth with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Málaga in a new recording on the IBS Classical label. In some ways, this is not a very idiomatic performance: it lacks both the bite and the considerable string warmth to be found when the music is played by the top German and Austrian orchestras. But now that Mahler’s music is so much a part of the classical mainstream – a status unthinkable until the 1960s – there are more and more ways to present it, and this one is quite intriguing. The first two movements are the least convincing here, with the opening trumpet tattoo less acerbic than it can be and the funeral march somewhat less Wie ein Kondukt than in the best performances. The storms of the second movement are also a bit on the tame side, although the actual playing is first-rate. The symphony’s second part – the third movement, with its highly prominent French horn passages – is considerably more effective, presented with rhythmic clarity and paced well (Mahler worried that conductors would take it too quickly; that is not the case here). And the symphony’s third part is very fine indeed: the Adagietto is played with straightforward beauty, without overdone attempts at warmth and without trying to downplay its very deliberate naïveté, while the concluding Rondo – which has simplicity of its own – is presented with bounce, optimism, and even a touch of humor that neatly counterbalances the extreme seriousness of the symphony’s first part. This is a very well-considered and nicely played version of a Fifth that is highly significant in its composer’s ongoing symphonic development, building effectively on what came before while taking Mahler’s musical thinking in new directions.

     The Fifth served a very different purpose for Shostakovich. For years, it was one of his most popular symphonies, perhaps the most popular of all, thanks to the way its first three movements encapsulate his compositional style, while its fourth offers straightforward triumphalism without the overt gloss of Socialist Realism so dear to the rulers of the USSR. But Shostakovich’s famous statement that the work was “the reply of a Soviet artist to just criticism,” it became increasingly clear, was made under duress and out of fear, and that led to considerations of subtexts and ironies within the Fifth – and the possibility that it did not in fact reflect the composer’s thinking as either musician or human being (in contrast to the suppressed Fourth). This led to a decrease in performances and caused many conductors to try to force the work’s bright finale into an ironic mode, often through a tempo so slow that the Allegro non troppo designation came much closer to an Adagio by the end. Thankfully, it now seems that conductors – some conductors, anyway – are willing to perform Shostakovich’s Fifth as written and let listeners decide for themselves what to make of it. András Keller does just that in an exceptionally fine-sounding and excellently played Tacet recording featuring Concerto Budapest (the new name of the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra). Given Hungary’s fraught relationship with the USSR and, more recently, with Russia, it may come as something of a surprise that the musicians handle this symphony with such strength and commitment. But that is just what they do: the expansive first movement, astringent Scherzo, and broad and intense Largo are excellently paced and played, and the finale – taken most definitely at a speed in the Allegro realm – rings forth in triumph and brilliance of orchestration, none of which will prevent the audience from wondering what exactly Shostakovich was trying to say here, and what he was trying not to say. The answer to the second part of that question may be found not so much in the Fifth of 1937 but in the Ninth of 1945 – a much shorter symphony, though in five movements rather than four, and one whose poised absurdity and unexpected turns of phrase show the depth of Shostakovich’s disillusionment with the USSR and its rulers in a way that the Fifth (in any interpretation) never quite does. Keller and Concerto Budapest handle this work quite wonderfully, allowing it its moments of apparently lighthearted humor while permitting the underlying sarcasm of a supposed celebration of the end of World War II to come through at every turn. After the large-scale wartime Seventh and Eighth symphonies, Shostakovich’s Ninth is in many respects downright peculiar – and a great deal more approachable than its two predecessors. Pairing the Fifth and Ninth (and never mind any inevitable thoughts of the difference between Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth) makes this a thoughtful recording as well as one that thoroughly plumbs the intricacies and uncertainties associated with both of these works.

     It is the number six rather than five that is prominent in much 18th-century (and early 19th-century) music, since works were often released in groups of half a dozen. Sometimes two sixes – that is, two half-dozens – appeared together. This explains the Op. 3 and Op. 6 Concerti Grossi by Handel, now available in splendid recordings on PentaTone, featuring Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Bernhard Forck (Op. 6) and Georg Kallweit (Op. 3). The earlier set of these marvelously effervescent concertos is something of a mishmash, having been assembled by the publisher with little if any input from Handel himself. As a result, Op. 3 – which is sometimes referred to as a set of oboe concertos, given the prominence of that instrument in many movements – has works of very disparate character, ranging from a two-movement one to two that are in five movements. This many years after the publication of Op. 3 in 1734, the works’ provenance scarcely matters, but their many delights remain, and the 20-or-so-member ensemble (augmented as needed for the movements with recorder, flute and/or bassoon) plays every concerto with tremendous style and panache and what sounds like great delight. Indeed, the works really are delightful, even though many partake of pastiche (including movements reused from operas), and one – the two-movement No. 6 – is really an organ concerto. The Op. 3 concertos’ forms vary, with more or less focus on a solo instrument: some leave the overall impression of what we usually think of as a concerto, while others more closely resemble Baroque suites. Much the same is true of the Op. 6 concertos, whose publication had a distinct pecuniary edge to it: one reason Handel reused so much of his music in altered form (sometimes unaltered form) was that he could present it in different contexts and make more money from it than he would be using it for a single purpose. Thus, the Op. 6 concertos could function as standalone works in concerts – both professional and amateur – and could also take the place of overtures to operas or oratorios, or be used as transitions or “intermission pieces” within stage works. The Op. 6 concertos are all in multiple movements – from four to six – and contain some unusual designations, including Largo e piano, Polonaise, Larghetto e staccato, Musette, Hornpipe, and Siciliana. Individual movements can be as short as 40 seconds or as long as six minutes. Yet Handel’s characteristic style, the marvelous balance he creates among the instruments, and the verve and skill with which Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin re-creates the music, all help the distinct elements hold together wonderfully well. The sheer joy of music-making is what comes through most clearly in this very fine three-CD set, which passes along a large helping of that joy to listeners – through all the thrice six concertos presented here.

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