October 26, 2023


Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Czech Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Pentatone. $15.99.

Mendelssohn: Songs without Words, Op. 19, Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6; Op. 30, No. 6; Op. 38, Nos. 2 and 6; Op. 53, No. 1; Op. 62, No. 1; Op. 67, Nos. 3 and 5; Op. 85, No. 4; Op. 102, Nos. 3 and 4; Price Walden: Songs without Words. Bruce Levingston, piano. Sono Luminus. $16.99.

     For most composers, most of the time, a song is just what listeners expect it to be: music with words delivered by a human voice, with some sort of accompaniment. But some composers have stretched the term “song” in interesting ways, whether by making vocalise (wordless singing) an important part of a work (as in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3) or by building larger, more-complex structures around songs – as Mahler did in his Symphony No. 1 (and indeed in all four of his first symphonies). From the moment the long-held opening note of Mahler’s First gives way to Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld from the composer’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the symphony is pervaded by tunes from Mahler’s song cycles, combined with songs from other sources, including the unlikely use of Bruder Martin (Frère Jacques) as the basis of the third movement. The song elements are a major contributor to the symphony’s mixture of drama and lyricism – and a new performance on Pentatone, featuring the Czech Philharmonic under Semyon Bychkov, really makes the music sing, focusing strongly on the symphony’s lyrical elements. The first movement opens quietly, a bit slowly, so the woodland scene emerges gradually, the main song theme sounding very sweet. Bychkov makes the rhythm almost danceable, and the instrumental balance is very good. This is an expansive reading, the wayfarer (Mahler used the word in the sense of “journeyman” rather than someone just gadding about idly) meandering through the fields rather than being in any particular hurry to get anywhere. The movement is elegantly played, the evenness of orchestral sections being especially notable. The second movement is again strongly rhythmic, its brass interjections sounding more clearly than they often do. Here the Ländler elements come to the fore, with joyousness pervasive in the final section amid really fine-sounding brass. The third movement opens very quietly, with an eerie sound on which the orchestra slowly builds. Bruder Martin was sung in the minor in Austria in Mahler’s time, but Mahler’s use of it as the basis of a minor-key funeral march was new and remains effective. Under Bychkov, the march rhythm is understated, the klezmer roots of the movement’s middle portion are brought forward, and the sectional balance of the orchestra is carefully managed throughout. The finale starts with more intensity than anything earlier in the performance, providing the strong contrast that Mahler envisioned. There is a definite sense of strength and conflict until the recollections begin of earlier movements (including music from the discarded Blumine, the original second movement). After the first quieter section, Bychkov returns with clarity to the warmth and smooth flow so evident earlier. Structurally, this movement meanders somewhat, but Bychkov holds it together by keeping its momentum strong and managing the balance among sections carefully. The quieter and slower passages become intervals in a movement that ends up sounding both like a summation of what has come before and like a tone poem building to eventual triumph over adversity. Throughout, the underlying songlike elements of the music remain, pointing to warmth and lyricism beneath even the greatest turmoil.

     Decades before Mahler adapted some of his lieder for symphonic purposes, Mendelssohn came up with his own way of creating songs that were not quite songs in the traditional sense. These are the Songs without Words – 48 of them, eight volumes of six pieces each (the seventh and eighth volumes were published posthumously). Pianist Bruce Levingston has an intriguing and rather quirky way of presenting some of them: he offers 14, split into two groups of seven, with a third group of seven somewhat similar piano works in the middle. That middle group was composed by Price Walden (born 1991) and has enough in common with Mendelssohn’s works – and enough that is different from them – to make for an interesting centerpiece of the recording. Harder to understand is Levingston’s way with the Mendelssohn pieces themselves: the composer did have reasons for gathering his Songs without Words into specific groupings, and even though each of the pieces can be played out of context at any time, Levingston’s mixture of them is a helter-skelter affair. The Songs without Words are actually typical of a form that became quite popular during the Romantic era: short, self-contained works, most of them lyrical, generally designed for pianists to play at home – in general, the material is scarcely virtuosic. What is important in these pieces is their emotive ability, and this is where Levingston excels: Mendelssohn may have written what would later be called “salon music,” but if so, it is high-level salon music, imbued with sensitivity and lyrical beauty to which a pianist must pay close attention if the works are to have their very pleasing effect. Levingston excels at extracting the warmth and beauty of these pieces without overstating their importance or trying to turn them into something grander than they are. The pleasantries here are many, but the choice of which works to play and in what order is decidedly peculiar: this Sono Luminus CD opens with Op. 102, No. 4, then moves to Op. 67, No. 3, then Op. 38, No. 2, and then Op. 38, No. 6 (which Mendelssohn called Duetto because of its two “vocal” lines). The second Venetianisches Gondellied appears seventh on the disc; the first is track No. 18. Neither contrasts of key nor those of mood can explain why Levingston chose to play these works in this order, so it is best for listeners to regard the CD as a highly personal one, reflecting the performer’s tastes – which means the recording will be most enjoyable for audiences that find they share those tastes. The success of the disc also hinges on responses to Walden’s contribution. No. 1, Prelude, features gentle note cascades and sufficient dissonance, especially in its later, chordal passages, to come across as a contemporary nocturne. No. 2, for the left hand (the title is all lower case), ripples pleasingly throughout. No. 3, Love Song – Duet, is not much like Mendelssohn’s Duetto but has its own charm and sense of dialogue. No. 4, Berceuse, is more irregular in rhythm than a lullaby would usually be, but its mostly quiet, rocking motion is pleasant. No. 5, Elegy, starts very softly indeed and continues in that vein through much of its length, sounding quietly mournful throughout and finally fading into oblivion. No. 6, Protest, opens gently – there is pervasive gentleness in Walden’s whole set of pieces – but becomes, midway through, much more emphatic, its dissonant chords leading to a somewhat more-headlong and equally dissonant section and eventual intense, if enigmatic, conclusion. No. 7, Lullaby, is prettier and sweeter than Berceuse and is genuinely soporific in its steady, slow meandering. None of Walden’s works possesses the easy tunefulness of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, but all of them are pleasantries in their own right, and as a whole they make a very nice complement to the Mendelssohn miniatures. Played by Levingston with sensitivity and limpidity, all the music on this CD is gentle, engaging and contemplative – a fine contrast to the hecticness and stressors of so much in everyday life.

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