MAHLER: Symphony No. 3
Anne Larsson, contralto; LSO Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Youth
Chorus; Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 502 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT: 33:23 & 64:17BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
MAHLER: Symphony No. 7
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 623 (2 CDs for the price of one) (F) (DDD) TT:
78:07BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
MAHLER: Symphony No. 9
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 624 (2 CD for the price of one) (F) (DDD)
TT: 81:03BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
Vienna State Opera Orch/Hermann Scherchen, cond.
WESTMINSTER 471 268 (M) (ADD) TT: 67:39BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
No. 10 (Wheeler version , edited by Robert Olson)
Polish National Radio Symphony Orch/Robert Olson, cond.
NAXOS 8.554811 (B) (DDD) TT: 78:79BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
Two-and-five-sixths of this
Mahler trove - which is to say the Abbado/Berlin recordings - are treasures
in the best sense, worth cashing in a couple of 401(k)s for the insights
in playing that surpass anything I've
experienced in the disc history of the Berlin Philharmonic. The precision,
balances, sonority, and comradeship within choirs makes some of Karajan's
legacy sound jack- booted and glutinous.
That said, let's clear
a piece of comparative junk out of the way - the Westminster reissue
of a slapdash, slipshod Fifth Symphony that Hermann Scherchen recorded
in 1952 with the "Vienna State Opera Orchestra." Vienna was
still recovering from WW2 (and would for
another 20 years). The Staatsoper an der Ring still lay in ruins, meaning
rank and file players in a pool of 140 did a lot of jobbing under various
names for smaller companies (Westminster/Nixa, Epic, Vox, et al.),
often with little or no rehearsal.
The self-governing Philharmonic skimmed the cream, though it was not
very busy in the recording studio from 1947 until the early and later
'50s. With mostly left-over players Westminster filled some holes in
the catalog, but its product lacked consistency, and predictability
in the case of Scherchen, an erratic autodidact. His American debut
didn't come until 1964, two years before his death at 74, when he led
the Philadelphia Orchestra in a mangled Mahler Fifth one can hear in
the orchestra's first self-produced volume
of broadcast material.
Here at least he didn't
move sections of the score from one movement to another. But this Westminster
is chiefly a historical document: the first complete commercial recording
of No. 5. The opening solo trumpet calls sound as if the player hadn't
eaten for several days, although horns and trombones manage to play
robustly later on. Wind intonation is haphazard, the strings lack weight
(probably understaffed, given Westminster's budgets), and the reading
- well, you remember the car chase in Bullitt?
It's not a matter of timings which are conventional if a shade quick,
but what happens inside them. There are Mahler Fifths by the carload
- the one I've kept is Abbado's thrilling 1993 live performance with
the Berlin Philharmonic on DGG; a couple of minutes slower overall
than Scherchen's but everywhere to Mahler's advantage. Interestingly,
both take 9 minutes for the Adagietto,
with Abbado 14 seconds quicker, but the difference in playing and sound
makes this Westminster a relic, at its worst a parody.
Of Abbado's most recent
Mahler CDs on DGG, all of them live performances, two are remakes -
of No. 3 (which he did with the Vienna Phil in the '80s - Schwann/Opus omitted
the year before it ceased publication ), and No. 7 (with the Chicago
Symphony in 1984, until now my benchmark recording of that piece).
With the Berlin, Abbado takes both "Night Music" movements
in No. 7 quicker (15:54 vs. 16:37, and 12:58 vs. 14:01), but the first,
third, and final movements are virtually unchanged. Within, however,
nuances are innumerably expressive and enlightening without sounding
mannered in the slightest, which the Berliners play with a subtlety
one doesn't hear from the Chicago Symphony of Solti's era. Recorded
in May 2001, the year Abbado suffered radical surgery and yet survived,
it is the most recent of his three Berlin releases, and sonically all
one could ask from two channel stereo. More than any other conductor
-and I've heard plenty given that No. 7 is my favorite Mahler Symphony
- Abbado finds and sustains a structure in the opening movement that
escaped even a colleague as distinguished as Michael Gielen. There
are plenty of Sevenths, good ones too (although I don't share R.E.B.'s
recent enthusiasm for a 1977 Kondrashin version from Amsterdam on Tahra).
But you can jettison all but a couple if space is a problem. Abbado's
2001 Seventh is an abiding source of wonder, and for every Mahler fan
an essential purchase.
I didn't much care for
the Viennese No. 3 with Jessye Norman as contralto soloist. It seemed
almost fractured in the mighty opening movement, fussy in the middle
movements, and quite matter of fact in the Adagio finale
(not necessarily a drawback) until Abbado prolonged the final chord
beyond reason or proportion. In 1999 with the Berlin Phil, a live tour
performance in London's Royal Festival Hall, he had tightened and tautened
the first movement - it now packs a terrific wallop, although less
than the cumulative impact of Michael Gielen's on H”nssler (with a
fine orchestra but no Berlin Philharmonic). The second and third movements
are still arch, and Abbado continues to prefer a very slow tempo thereafter
for the setting of Nietzsche's "O Mensch! Gib act!" But his
most excellent singer, Anna Larsson, has no trouble sustaining either
his virtual stasis or her intonation. To advantage, he darkens the
mood at the end of the fifth movement as Gielen has always done, which
makes the finale ("What love tells me") that much more consolatory.
Here it lasts 22 minutes vs. Gielen's 24:27 ‚ but dammit, when everything
has gone so well (despite the orchestra tiring audibly), Abbado again
prolongs the final note disproportionately. This has the same disruptive
effect as Daniel Barenboim's sudden, off-to- the-hounds Presto in
the last measures of Saint-SaÎns' Third Symphony with the Chicago Symphony,
spoiling what was otherwise one of the two best recordings ever made
of that work.
Still, I'm keeping the
new Abbado (oddly, one Britcrick complained of artificial reverb, writing
that the sound lacked punch in the climaxes; but not on my rig). However,
it is Gielen's I'll play when I want to commune with Mahler. Abbado
offers no filler: the first movement (33:23)
is featured by itself on disc 1; the remaining five movements (including
3:20 of rapture
by the London audience) fill the second one.
Now for the Ninth, which
I don't believe Abbado previously recorded, and which already has two
digital performances on DGG by Karajan and the Berlin Phil - made just
two years apart in the halcyon 1980s of fat budgets and brisk sales.
This new one is superb without equivocation.
After the L”ndler scherzo,
Abbado's Rondo-Burleske is
terrifying in its accumulation of bitterness and anger - Mahler decrying
God in effect - after which the long Adagio finale
is both a reconciliation and a benediction. Giulini (with Chicago)
is the only other Italian conductor I know of who has recorded the
Ninth, and a troubled reading it remains, albeit hardly idiomatic.
Abbado has made the work his own - it could be a different orchestra
than Karajan's that plays so beautifully and immaculately now. He has
solved how it goes without stinting on detail or sacrificing structure,
and amazingly DG has fit it on a single disc, including almost 2 minutes
of applause: a total timing of 81:03! I don't know another performance
in this league, and urge that you buy No. 9 as well as No. 7 if Mahler's
time has come for you. The recorded sound is so transparently natural
one isn't aware of it as such until later.
Which leaves the Naxos
Tenth with a pedigree otherwise unmatched on discs: the completion
by Joe Wheeler (1927-77), a British composer, undertaken in 1952-53
- unaware that his compatriot Deryck Cooke (with the help of Berthold
Goldschmidt) or Chicagoan Clinton Carpenter
were using the materials then extant that Alma Mahler allowed to be
published in 1923. Both Wheeler and Carpenter (the first one finished
in 1947) lacked the 50 pages of additional music found subsequently,
chiefly for the second movement and
published as part of a follow-up "facsimile manuscript" in
1967. Cooke's first version of 1960 was denounced by the widow until
she heard a broadcast of it shortly before her death in 1964. Before
Cooke's own death he completed a second performing version,
but it was his first one that debuted on discs: a nobly impassioned
performance by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on CBS/Sony,
harshly recorded, especially on top, which sounds best on my mid-fi
computer! The Carpenter version was produced in New
York City with the help of Remo Mazzetti Jr., who was moved to make
his own version in 1983; Leonard Slatkin premiered and recorded it
in Saint Louis for RCA Red Seal. The Wheeler went unheard until a "Colorado
Mahlerfest" in 1997, again with Mazzetti's assistance. When the
latter realized that Wheeler's version, in the words of Jerry Bruck, "came
closer to what [Mazzetti] now felt was Mahler's last style [i.e. leaner]
than even his own first version," he revised his score substantially.
It is Mazzetti's revised version that Jes™s LŰpez-Cobos recorded two
years ago in Cincinnati for Telarc.
Wheeler made four revisions of his original as
new materials came to light. The last one in 1966 is what the Polish
National Radio Symphony recorded for Naxos in 2000 at Katowice. Robert
Olson, music director of the summertime Colorado homage and chief conductor
of the Kansas State Ballet the rest of the year, is listed in Naxos'
credits as "editor" of the Wheeler edition. It turns out
to be both beautiful and poignant in the vein of Cooke I - in other
words less prolix than subsequent versions which used Mahler's Seventh
and Eighth Symphonies as their model. Olson, sorry to say, doesn't
do justice to the great outbursts - those sudden dissonant chords in
the opening Adagio that
return in the finale, or the muffled drum-beats in the fourth movement
and finale. They sound perfunctory, hurried; so does the theme that
follows. And the orchestra somewhat lacks in numbers what the writing
calls for; Mahler did complete both the first and third (Purgatorio)
movements, which the widow - by then Alma Mahler Gropius, nČe Schindler,
with Werfel yet to be added - asked her son-in-law Ernst Krenek to
edit for performance in 1924. Interestingly, despite her later tantrums,
she had first asked Schoenberg to consider completing the Tenth, but
by then he was a light-year distant from
Mahler; in the 1940s, Schoenberg turned down another offer by Jack
Diether of the Bruckner-Mahler Society. So did Shostakovich.
In Olson's favor, he conducts
gentler portions of the music with genuine tenderness - the ending
is almost as transfigured as Simon Rattle's with the Berlin Phil on
EMI (released to celebrate his nomination as Abbado's successor there,
although a contract wasn't signed until this past spring). Polish strings
may not have the patina of Berlin's, but they've recorded Mahler extensively
for Naxos under Antoni Wit, meaning the style is in their bones. Olson
has summoned a weight and poignance that move one close to tears at
the end of this farewell to life. I prefer Wheeler's version to Mazzetti's,
and urge Mahlerians to supplement whichever versions of No. 10 they
already have with this budget-priced pearl. As usual in products from
Katowice, Beata Jankowska has tripled
as producer, engineer and editor: the result here is one of her best
recordings to date.
Since the above appeared on line, two readers have corrected my paragraph about
the Mahler Ninth. Longtime friend and colleague John von Rhein, music critic
of the Chicago Tribune since 1977, was the first to point out that
Abbado recorded it with the Vienna Philharmonic for DGG in the 1980s. Lawrence
Kasimow not only remembered the 1980s version (which, truth to tell, I never
even knew had been recorded, much less issued) but one also
on DGG by Giuseppe Sinopoli with the Philharmonia Orchestra (plus Symphonies
1, 2 and 5). Mr. Kasimow furthermore advised that Arkadia once published
a broadcast performance by the late Bruno Maderna (date and orchestra unspecified)
- a superb interpreter of the Second Viennese School, whose paterfamilias
Arnold Schoenberg and pupil Anton von Webern were unabashed admirers of Mahler
(and in the latter case a celebrated conductor).
Apologies for the omissions, but by the
time they appeared I was no longer writing record reviews, nor keeping
up with new releases in a time of glut and duplications. It's called
burn-out, and the hiatus proved in time to be healing. But I gave away
most of the catalogs and historical volumes by R.D. Darrell
and David Hall (I), which left a gap in my resources.