In my lifetime, I have watched Mahler travel from fringe to
mainstream. Now where to go? One of the more interesting developments
over the last couple of decades is the emergence of a new school
of Mahler conducting. The early years of the Mahler boom were
sufficiently dominated by the emotional performances of Leonard
Bernstein to keep other alternatives from seeming much more
than toned-down versions of the same approach. But in the void
following Bernsteinís passing, Pierre
Boulez and Christoph von Dohnanyi spearheaded cool, objective
approaches that have become a significant and influential counterbalance
to the visceral Bernstein. Unfortunately, taming the beast Mahler
for domestic use has been the result, as less intense conductors
have, in effect, put Mahler on Prozac. Instead of saving a troubled
artistís visionary statements for special occasions, we now
have even-keel Mahler suitable for playing as background music
during housework or on the desk radio in the office.
Such thoughts came to me while I was listening to the Warner
Apex reissue of Kent Naganoís 1999 recording of Mahlerís Third.
I donít mean to dismiss it too curtly, for it is a fresh, charming,
even Haydnesque performance. But it falls some distance short
of the soul-stirring experiences to be found in classic performances
such as those from Barbirolli (BBC),
and Levine (RCA).
Perusal of the rambling first movement of the piece found a
crisp, buoyant performance from Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester
Berlin. Without being quite as hard-pressed as Sir Georg Solti
(Decca) or Vaclav Neumann (Supraphon), Nagano keeps things moving
along with an elegant efficiency. Thereís fussiness, too, as
Nagano has his players clip the quarter note in the opening
marchís underpinning rhythm: Instead of da-da-da-daaa, we get
da-da-da-dat. Nagano has a point, to a degree. Some performances
hold out that quarter note, short-changing the rest which follows
it. But Naganoís clipping is so abrupt, it sounds like the quarter
note is being played staccato, which exaggerates it in the opposite
direction, making it just as wrong as putting undue emphasis
on the note. What troubles me is that in an hour and a half
of music, these are the only sort of insights Nagano offers:
Close, fussy readings or the occasional debatable exaggeration.
Otherwise, all is poised and elegant, but rather lightweight.
Just to make sure my Mahler gyroscope was reading correctly,
I put on a recording by another respected German orchestra for
comparison: The Cologne Radio Symphonyís 1985 recording with
Gary Bertini on EMI.
What a difference! Gone was the dapper dandy approach, replaced
by something electric, primordial, and massive. Granted, Bertini
allows the movement much more space than Nagano, but like Nagano,
he is a poised, intellectual guide, nothing at all like the
freewheeling Bernstein. But whereas the music slides easily
past in Naganoís hands, under Bertiniís baton, every moment
is a palpable occasion. Those who dislike visionary grandstanding,
then, may well love the way Nagano recasts the first movement
as a well-behaved garden instead of a dangerous wilderness.
My favorite movement in Naganoís recording is the second. This
wildflower minuet often becomes blank or saccharine in performances
by conductors more excited by the crash-bang climaxes of the
adjacent movements, but Nagano is very alive to its watercolor
freshness, highlighting its swathes of color with a few exaggerated
but effective ritardandos. At the bargain price of this Warner
Apex release, collectors might enjoy picking up this version
just for this movement alone. Most of the following scherzo
seems comparable in freshness and color, though with the wild
element a little soft-pedaled. The post-horn trio is lovely
and distant, if not as daringly distant as in Zanderís
Telarc recording. The rendition of the movement fails to
capitalize on its strengths, though, as Nagano first rushes
through the visionary interruption just before the coda, then
rushes the coda itself at a pace which may be superficially
exciting, but which does not allow enough weight for a crushing
closing. Whereas Bernsteinís forest animals turn fearsome and
wild, Naganoís crew remains a frolicsome petting zoo.
Mezzo Dagmar Peckova brings an attractive bright vocal color
to the full range of the fourth movementís Nietzsche setting.
Interestingly, Nagano encourages Peckova and the bird-call imitating
oboe and English horn to be directly expressive, instead of
the more mysterious approach usually heard. That combined with
the clear, close recording means that this night music is shorn
of the usual fog and outlined quite straightforwardly. If not
the ideal solution to this often elusive movement, it is at
least fresh. The fifth movement angels are buoyant and polite,
without either the gravity of Horenstein or the earthiness of
Levine. The finale is attractively songful, if still burning
rather dimly in intensity. The orchestra is not as creamy and
pure of intonation as would be ideal for this approach, lending
a stridency to some of the big peaks, but it allows ample room
for the music to make its impact on its own terms.
The recorded sound, from Berlinís Philharmonie, is both clear
and spacious, fulfilling Naganoís colorful yet classical touch.
Neither texts nor comments are included in the booklet.
Mark Sebastian Jordan