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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Four Movements
Totenfeier (1888) [26:36]
Symphony No. 10 - Adagio [26:52]
Blumine (1864-88) [7:22]
What the Wild Flowers Tell Me” – arrangement of the second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) [9:26]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Alter Oper Frankfurt, February 2008 (1); October 2007 (2); hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt (3, 4)
VIRGIN CLASSICS 2165762 [70:16]
Experience Classicsonline

First impressions can be proleptic of a more considered response. I found myself instantly irked by being confronted by multiple images of the conductor’s face, twice on the front of the booklet, once on the back and again on the reverse of the CD. Mr Järvi might be a fine conductor but a pin-up he is not, and I do not think he is yet ready to be presented à la Karajan or Bernstein, in soulful, gnomic pose, air-brushed and graphically tweaked to look like an Old Master oil painting and gazing out upon the hapless music-lover for all the world like La Gioconda. You need already to have generated some epic status to carry that off. Why do record companies feel the need to be seen to massage the ego of a would-be “sleb” conductor like this?

Having got that out of my system, let’s turn to the music. I suppose my irritation was intensified by my finding the content of this disc so disappointing. I could argue that it is disingenuous of other critics to complain that the programme here is disjointed; it is what it says it is and could be of interest to Mahler tyros and buffs alike, in that it variously presents original, alternative, discarded, incomplete and re-arranged movements from four great symphonies. The idea is not without merit, but the sequencing and execution of the four pieces here is unsatisfactory. We begin with two mighty movements from two very different worlds: the apocalyptic vision of the “Totenfeier” with its granitic blocks of sound, followed by the subtle chromaticism and sublime, painful ecstasy of the Adagio - which should surely never be followed by anything, either in concert or on disc. The effect is bathetic when we descend to comparatively slight trifles such as Britten’s charming arrangement of Was mir die Blumen in der Wiese erzählen and the “Blumine”. Järvi’s pallid rendering confirms that Mahler was quite right to cut the latter from the “Titan”, as it is not his most inspired creation. In any case, surely these two movements should have opened the disc rather than act as encores or bon-bons; they belong chronologically and emotionally to Mahler’s earlier artistic development, in the world of “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”. We really don’t want funeral rites before flowery meadows.

This would matter less if the performances themselves were more recommendable, but they chime with the current penchant for “Mahler Lite”. While I have little taste for it myself, I concede that a sparer, pared down approach to Mahler can afford new insights, but it must be done better than it is here. There isn’t too much to say about the execution of the two slighter movements here except that they are efficiently and prosaically despatched, evincing little feeling for their poetry. “Blumine” is, in any case, too lightweight for the First Symphony as a whole which is why Mahler correctly decided to excise it from the finished work. Britten’s reduced orchestration version of “What the wild flowers tell me” was simply a sensible, practical and reverential expedient to try to get Mahler played more widely at a time when the inclusion of any of his music in a concert programme was still a comparative rarity. Incidentally, it was Britten who introduced “Blumine” to the British public, too.

Inevitably it is the quality of the two longer, more serious and substantial movements which maters most, as the other two items are essentially fillers. While there are subtle differences in the orchestration and rhythmic details between the original “Totenfeier” and its eventual form, the two versions are sufficiently alike to permit comparison between classic recordings by Klemperer and Rattle and this new one. I have to say that these comparisons are all to Järvi’s disadvantage. While he secures clean, clear articulation of the musical argument, this clarity is achieved at the expense of excitement; he engenders none of the tension which characterises both Klemperer’s famous live and studio recordings. Klemperer’s attack and use of stringendo are electrifying; his attention to moulding the phrases and grading the dynamics creates a maelstrom of sound building inexorably to the climactic cymbal crash. Rattle works differently, showing more restraint. His double-basses in the opening measures have been asked to think hard about phrasing and shading. A terrible sense of foreboding pervades the music until the shattering entry of the brass. Järvi provides no such arcing overview; there are sudden fortissimos with out preparation or reason, the scurrying downward motion of the strings carries little sense of a descent into panic and the music essentially goes to sleep just where it should take off. The problem is not one of timing but shaping. There is a blandness, a lack of conviction here; Järvi fails to imbue Mahler’s music with inner life and tension. Rattle’s account of the Adagio from the completed Tenth Symphony with the Belin Philharmonic sounds so much grander and statelier – yet a glance at the timings confirms that he is unbelievably almost two minutes faster. In any case, I suspect that few Mahler fans want any longer to hear just the Adagio as an appendage now that we have become used to hearing the Tenth in its entirety in excellent completions such as Deryck Cooke’s.

This disc has fine orchestral playing in excellent sound, but I can find little to praise. Järvi received rave reviews from the Frankfurt press when he performed this music in concert, yet one observation from the Frankfurt Rundschau critic is telling: “Anyone who favours lush, Hollywood-style Mahler will not feel at home with Järvi and his orchestra.” If “Hollywood-style” is meant to refer to Bernstein’s way with Mahler, I’ll go with Lennie any day – yet this absurd jibe is refuted merely by listening to Klemperer … and I do not recall anyone trying to accuse him of being in any way “Disneyfied” as a conductor.

Ralph Moore


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