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CD: Dux

Gustav MAHLER (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-1896) [97.38]
Elena Zaremba (contralto)
Warsaw Philharmonic Choir/Henryk Wojnarowski
Warsaw Boys’ Choir/Krzysztof Kusiel-Moroz
Sinfonia Varsovia/Jerzy Semkow
rec. live, St Mary Magdalene Polish-Catholic Cathedral, Wroclaw, Poland, 2004. DDD
DUX 0664/5 [60:49 + 36:49]
Experience Classicsonline

First, a word about the orchestra which is new to me.  It is the Polish Chamber Orchestra which must have been enlarged considerably for this concert.  In this much expanded guise it takes on the name Sinfonia Varsovia.  It is an important ensemble in Poland and has Krzysztof Penderecki as Artistic Director, and Marc Minkowski as Music Director.  The recording, I believe, was taken during a concert given in the Polish-Catholic Cathedral of St Mary Magdalene in Wroclaw in 2004 - the exact date is not given.
Mahler conceived his Third Symphony as a musical picture of the natural world. It is one of his most imposing, ambitious, and vast creations with a span of over 90 minutes - some recordings are in excess of 100 minutes.  He initially gave the movements titles, but the way the titles changed over time gives a clue as to his ambiguity about describing in words what is in the end, an abstract concept. Having said that, many of the themes are based on songs, some from the cycle ‘Das Knaben Wunderhorn’, which influenced the first four of Mahler’s symphonies.  The movement titles are as follows:
1. The opening movement was initially called 'The Arrival of Summer' or 'Pan's Awakening' and, later, 'Procession of Bacchus'.
2. 'What the Flowers of the Fields Tell Me'
3. 'What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me'
4. 'What Night Tells Me' (later changed to 'What Man Tells Me')
5. 'What the Cuckoo Tells Me' (replaced by 'Morgenglocken' [Morning Bells] and later, by 'What the Angels Tell Me')
6. 'What Love Tells Me'
In this symphony we must feel the elements of nature in all their guises and Mahler presents us with some powerful imagery.  Although at first hearing, the first movement seems episodic, it is in fact a symphonic sonata form movement albeit on a vast scale.  The opening statement is given on eight horns in unison and should be a powerful statement of intent and the start of a long journey.  With some ‘cracks’ on the strings and percussion the music fades and falls into stillness with just the bass drum quietly beating a solemn tattoo.  The music groans and wails as if nature is trying to wake from its winter slumber.  After several attempts the summer march begins to assert itself and one realises that the first 250 bars of music has served merely as an introduction to the movement ‘proper’.  This section includes many passages with imitations of bird-calls, statements of the opening horn melody, interruptions by the solo trombone, whooping brass, shrill woodwind, including at one point, four piccolos screeching in their highest register – all hallmarks of Mahler’s orchestration; culminating in a sequence of scales for strings which reminds me of  rushing spring floodwater.  This dies away and we hear offstage side-drums which signal the movement’s recapitulation, beginning with the opening horn-call.  With brief references to other themes, the march takes over and we run headlong to the final ecstatic final bars.
Mahler was always very detailed in the markings in his scores, and many times he adds notes for the conductor to aid the interpretation, or explain the effect he is trying to achieve.  On the very first page he has a note ‘The opening tempo is, for the most part, to be retained throughout the whole movement …’ For me, this means that the conductor needs to select a tempo which, while flexible enough, must fit the main themes so they seem natural, and not distorted.  It needs to be quick enough so the music does not drag and ensures the march theme, in particular, is lively but slow enough that the grand statements are not rushed.  Jerzy Semkow’s tempo seems to be just about ideal.  The opening horn theme has the gravitas needed and has forward momentum in the long introduction. It also gives the march proper just the right amount of swagger.  The minor variations in tempo within the movement are finely judged so when the various themes re-appear there is no ‘gear change’ to jolt the aural picture.  Semkow builds up the middle of the movement skilfully so that the return of the opening theme at figure 29 has a real impact.  The ‘rushing water’ episode is well managed and his attention to the rise and fall of the dynamics here really pays off.  All in all, a good first movement, but, being a live recording, it is marred by some mistakes: the piccolo after figure 37; the off-stage side-drums introducing the recapitulation are one bar late.  The playing from the orchestra is generally good, but the brass are rather tentative in places which robs this movement of some of its raw elemental force.
For comparison, first Gary Bertini with his Cologne forces (EMI) sets out with a tempo which is also about ideal. Indeed the timings for this movement are about the same – about 40 seconds in it. His brass section are not afraid of producing raucous sound when required.
Heinz Rogner (Berlin Classics) with his Berlin Radio forces seems to have the benefit of a larger string section than Semkow and his trombone soloist is more demonstrative. However, his is compromised by slowing down at figure 40 and losing momentum in the ‘rushing waters’ music.
Rafael Kubelik’s 1967 DG recording has individual instruments highlighted which produces an unnatural balance and he moves away from the basic tempo too much making the transitions jerky.  Indeed, the opening tempo seems just a bit too brisk and it sounds like the horns think so too – they seem discomfited by it and snatch at some of the notes.  He is about three and a half minutes faster than Semkow.
The second movement has allusions to one of the Wunderhorn songs; Das Himmlische Leben (Heavenly Life).  Semkov  selects a gracious tempo for the minuet opening with transparent textures allowing the orchestral detail to come through.  The transition to the quicker tempo, and back again near the end, is nicely judged.  The central section is full of mischief  giving some credence to the apparent annotation that Willem Mengelberg wrote on his score – Zigeuner – ‘gypsy’.  Bertini in this movement is too slow, making it leaden-footed – a clog dance rather than an elegant minuet. The faster section is very earthbound and deliberate.  Kubelik is even slower in the minuet, but faster in the middle section but again this does not ‘take flight’ as it does with Semkov.  Rogner has similar tempi to Semkov, but the orchestral detail is obscured and particularly the woodwind inner parts do not register.
The Wunderhorn song for the third movement is Ablösung im Sommer (Change-over in Summer) about the cuckoo who has died and the nightingale who takes over the singing. This uses the music of the song almost like a set of variations to depict the twittering of birds and scampering of the animals.  It includes two ‘interludes’ for Flügelhorn solo and Mahler directs that this should be ‘in the distance’.  In this recording it is too close for my liking.  I would have thought that in the church there could have been found some distant place for this to be played, so the sound would echo round the building to magical effect.  Bertini is better in this movement – a full two minutes longer than Semkov, and a better positioned Flügelhorn.  Kubelik’s woodwind have a pungent, more earthy sound, but also great delicacy when needed in the first Flügelhorn solo.  Rogner’s Flügelhorn is a distinctly odd-sounding instrument!
The next movements are directed to be played without a break between them. We now come to the dark, central slow movement for Alto solo with words from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Nietzsche.  In only 10 pages of score the conductor must conjure up an atmosphere of  both foreboding and longing for everlasting joy. It is marked Misterioso and I feel that Semkov’s tempo is just a shade on the fast side for this to be effective.  It needs to hang in the air as if suspended in time and space with little snippets of themes from the other movements appearing as if an echo or remembrance of the past. Rogner does some strange things with these references which sound bizarre!  The efforts of the conductor and orchestra are compromised by the alto soloist, Elena Zaremba, who begins well with the hushed utterances of ‘O Mensch!’, but is too loud in places (microphone placement?), and whose vibrato becomes too wide to give a smooth line.  Bertini’s alto (Gwendoline Killebrew) is worse with plummy vowels and her tuning is on the flat side toward the end.  Kubelik is better with Marjorie Thomas, but I went back to my old LPs for what I consider the finest performance of this movement – conducted by James Levine, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the incomparable Marilyn Horne (RCA Red Seal).  A full two minutes slower than Semkov, they spin a magical spell with adroit attention to detail, particularly dynamics.  Marilyn Horne’s singing strikes the right balance from the awestruck first utterance of ‘O Mensch!’ to the fuller assurances that joy will continue to eternity.
We are then immediately thrown into the realm of the angels with the ‘Poor Children’s Begging Song’ from ‘Das Knaben Wunderhorn’ about Peter’s betrayal and Christ’s forgiveness.  It includes a female chorus and a children’s choir along with the alto soloist, but omits the violins from the orchestra.  Semkov’s choirs sing heartily and are well balanced but they also observe the dynamic contrasts giving a satisfying performance of the music.  The only blot, as in most of these performances is the alto soloists who under-characterise the music.  Bertini’s soloist is also stretched by the high Fs at ‘Ich hab’ übertreten die zehn Gebot’.  The exception being Marilyn Horne again who is just about ideal.
We the reach the first of Mahler’s slow movement Finales ‘What Love Tells Me’.  It is marked ‘Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden’ – slow, peaceful, deeply felt.  This is sometimes a cue for conductors to wring out of the music all but the last bit of emotion, usually at the expense of the intention of the composer.  The timing of the different versions show a huge difference from Rogner at 21.51 to Levine at 26.53. Semkov sets out in this movement with a well judged tempo keeping the dynamics in check, not allowing the orchestra to move too far from the pp and ppp indications in the score.  This is in contrast to Bertini - and to some extent, Kubelik - who allow the music to get too loud too soon, thus destroying the effect of the first climax.  This climax is arrived at with shattering effect; the horns blaring out repeatedly parts of the very opening of the symphony that we heard over an hour ago. Each of the subsequent climaxes builds on the last so when we reach the final Brucknerian chorale, begun quietly on trumpets and trombones. We feel that we have arrived at the end of a long tortuous journey, but one which has proved a satisfying experience.  Although the symphony is quoted as being in D minor, the last 20 bars or so are simply an elaborate D major chord – that is, if anything in Mahler is ‘simple’.
So, what of this as a performance?  The symphony is the longest of Mahler’s canon and as such is liable to the odd mistake in live performances.  But, the more Mahler recordings I listen to the more I realise that if the conductor follows the directions given in the score, the more successful the performance.  Semkov, while not slavish to these directions, takes them to heart and uses them to produce a very satisfying whole; in spite of  the errors mentioned above.  He has a clear view of the architecture of the piece and selects tempi and dynamics to match this vision. The recording is well captured by the engineers, the church acoustic not giving many prolonged echo problems; it lets the sound bloom in the space afforded by the building.  If you don’t have a version of this symphony, this is a good one to start to get to know this complex work. If you do have one - or more than one - then this is a good addition to any record library.
It is a 2 CD set with an extensive booklet (in Polish and English) containing an essay setting the symphony in the context of Mahler’s life; articles on the conductor, orchestra, choirs and soloist.  There is a track-listing but no text or translation.
Arther Smith


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