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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor [95:24]
Dagmar Peckova (mezzo);
Women of the Rundfunkchor Berlin; Knabenchor Hannover
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano.
rec. 1999, Philharmonie, Berlin.
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 2564 681617 [32:11 + 63:11]

Experience Classicsonline

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 Bernstein’s 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 artist’s 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 Nagano’s 1999 recording of Mahler’s Third. I don’t 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), Bernstein (DG), Horenstein (Unicorn) 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. There’s fussiness, too, as Nagano has his players clip the quarter note in the opening march’s 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 Nagano’s 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 Symphony’s 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 Nagano’s hands, under Bertini’s 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 Nagano’s 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 Zander’s 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 Bernstein’s forest animals turn fearsome and wild, Nagano’s crew remains a frolicsome petting zoo.

Mezzo Dagmar Peckova brings an attractive bright vocal color to the full range of the fourth movement’s 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 Berlin’s Philharmonie, is both clear and spacious, fulfilling Nagano’s colorful yet classical touch. Neither texts nor comments are included in the booklet.

Mark Sebastian Jordan







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