Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.2 Resurrection (1894) [85:11]
Alice Coote (mezzo); Natalie Dessay (soprano)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. live, Alte Oper, Frankfurt, 6-8 May 2009. Stereo. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 50999 694586 0 6 [23:17 + 61:54]
Another Mahler 2 for the composer’s anniversary year, but not one that stands out from the crowd. Competency is evident in every aspect of this recording: the orchestra, the choir, the soloists, the sound. But there are no surprises here, and Paavo Järvi errs on the side of caution in every aspect of his interpretation.
Or perhaps I should say lack of interpretation. Järvi takes pride in his fidelity to details of the score, and true enough, he doesn’t put a foot wrong. But this music needs more from the podium - it needs passion and drive and at least half an eye on the bigger picture. It is telling that the last Mahler disc from Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra was entitled ‘Mahler Movements’, because this latest project also focuses on the individual moments and movement at the expense of the whole.
Most of the first movement is slower than you will hear elsewhere. The tempos call to mind Rattle’s famous CBSO recording, but where Rattle creates tension and anticipation through his restraint, Järvi’s slower tempos have the effect of draining the music of its drama and energy. Much of this first movement sounds positively relaxed, which often makes for pleasant listening, but is hardly the intended effect.
That laid-back approach is more appropriate to the second movement, which is largely successful as a result. In the vast discography of this symphony, interpretations of the second and third movements fall into two broad categories, with some conductors pulling the music around, emphasising the phrasing through exaggerated rubato, while others maintain a steady pace throughout. Despite his otherwise relaxed demeanour, Järvi is very much in the first category. It is another case of concentrating on the moment at the expense of the whole. Questions of taste are also raised by the regular violin glissandos. True enough, they are written in the score, but their emphatic presentation, where other conductors would be inclined to tone them down, speaks of a curiously blind faith in the stated performance directions.
The orchestra gets its chance to shine in the finale, and there are moments here of quite phenomenal playing. The percussion section both perform well and come across distinctly in the audio balance, allowing the individual instruments to be clearly distinguished. The brass is less impressive, with intonation problems in many of the solos, and regular splits in the tuttis.
An impressive turn from both soloists, although it seems a frustrating waste of talent booking Natalie Dessay for such a small role. But both singers, and Dessay in particular, bring a sense of operatic bravado to the movement. And it turns out, in the last 20 minutes or so, that Järvi has one final surprise up his sleeve, Orfeón Donostiarra, a Basque concert choir, presumably invited to Frankfurt specifically for the project. They have a dark, focused tone, an impressive dynamic range and spot-intonation.
All of which goes to make the ending of the work the highlight of this performance. As I say, I’ve no specific complaints with any of the playing up to here, it is just a very middle of the road interpretation. The sound quality is good, especially given that this is a live recording. In fact, it is only the modern audio standards - and possibly the surrealist cover art - that distinguish this from the many unexceptional recordings of the work from the 1970s and 1980s. A competent but old-fashioned Resurrection Symphony.
Competent but old-fashioned ... see Full Review
Nick Barnard was invited to do a blind review of this disc
This is one of the hardest reviews I have found myself writing because the more I find myself admiring the recording and performance the more I realise I don’t really warm to the piece itself. For once no question as to the work presented here in this ‘blind’ listening test – Mahler’s ‘Resurrection Symphony’ being immediately identifiable regardless of the disc’s listing as such. I suspect that, together with the Symphony No.5 (because of the ‘Death in Venice’ associations?) this is the most popular of the Mahler canon. For myself, it is one of those works I have yet to find an ideal performance of – probably in no small part because I find myself endlessly irritated by so much of Mahler’s musical posturing. As is well known, in his lifetime Mahler was far better known and respected as a conductor than a composer. I have never read any first-hand accounts of his conducting or rehearsal technique – I’m sure they exist and the omission is mine – but on the strengths of his scores I can’t help assuming that he was prone to tinker. If there is one thing that frustrates orchestral players it is a conductor who does not allow the players to play – too much time being taken over detailed explanations of minutiae that are swallowed up in the heat of performance. Mahler’s scores are weighed down with endless instructions and entreaties to his performers. Take the very opening of this work; within the first four bars there is - not including the basics of pitch or rhythm – a basic tempo marking which is then modified twice, two versions of a string tremolando, two dynamics plus a diminuendo and two types of accentuation – on the same note! And this is a phrase played only by the strings. Information overload is the phrase that springs to mind. Joking apart, it presents the performers and conductors with a very real dilemma – do they slavishly try to present the score exactly as marked or do they search for a more generalised ‘higher’ meaning. It takes a Bernstein at his most visionary to somehow fuse the two paths. I often wonder whether his success in this music has as much to do with the fact that the two were both composer/conductors with notoriously large egos. Certainly Bernstein is very successful at elevating Mahler’s neurotic obsessing to the level of high art. Without a doubt this symphony contains many thrilling and exciting passages and only those completely at odds with the sound-world Mahler creates could fail to be moved by any of it.
So to this performance specifically. Many aspects of it are very fine indeed. The orchestral playing is excellent – powerful or refined as required and full of individual moments of great musicality. Allied to this the recording is remarkably translucent. Inner detail superbly caught without sounding artificially balanced. This is all the more remarkable when you realise that this seems to be a live recording – a couple of very discreet coughs in one of the central movements being the only clue. As an aside – it does annoy me though that a recording is made live and then with a quick retake of the ending or some engineering jiggery-pokery the audience is removed and any applause eliminated. If it is live let me share in the audience’s pleasure! The engineering is well able to cope with the huge dynamic range and when the floor-shaking organ and full choir enter towards the end the impact is magnificent. Of the six other versions in my collection this is by some distance the best recorded. However, too often for my taste, throughout this is a performance fixated with the accurate recreation of every little instruction Mahler has written. I’m not sure I have ever heard a version – including Gilbert Kaplan’s reverentially under-inspired first version with the LSO – that so meticulously adheres to the letter of the score. I fully accept that that which turns me away from this recording will compel and convince others. It is a curious mix of reverentially ‘obedient’ and wilful. I really like the way pauses are given full expectant weight but then perversely the final gesture of the first movement – a chromatic descent hammering down to the depths – clearly marked Tempo 1 is played at a tempo far faster than anything preceding it so totally undermining the inexorable collapse into oblivion. Rather neatly the performance splits between discs after this first movement giving listeners the chance to obey Mahler’s injunction that there should be “at least” a five minute pause at this juncture. The central pair of movements are well played although again I find the strict adherence to Mahler’s instructions does make them feel fussy. Again and again I get this sense of fastidious neurosis running through this performance with the effects ‘bolted on’ from the outside rather than springing as an imperative from the music. The ‘primal light’ of the fourth movement Urlicht is caught with beautiful hushed and rapt playing from the strings. The soloist here does sound more like the ‘Altsolo’ called for in the score rather than a fuller voiced mezzo-soprano or even contralto that is often heard. Here I’m more split; I like the use of a mezzo but then again that could be simply down to the fact that that is what I am used to. The singer here sings with an appealing simplicity but if pushed I would have to say I prefer a Christa Ludwig who is able to bring a greater emotional heft to her performance; the preferred style here reflects – not unreasonably – more of the wide-eyed Wunderhorn innocence albeit that the text is not a setting of one of those poems. Again, I can only say that I am sure for some listeners this will represent their ideal.
The opening of the Finale is always a nightmare both for instrumental and recording clarity – a real triumph here – the harps clearly present and busy low string fingers marvellously articulated. The choir, who have been waiting over an hour for their entry, are superbly drilled, their tone well blended and the attack very fine indeed. They do not sound overly large in number – this is a work and a moment that benefits from sheer scale – and they do not have a very Germanic sound as far as I can tell. Mahler’s writing for the men of the choir in particular seems to suit German or Eastern European choirs particularly well. Now here’s an odd little textual quirk; the soprano soloist’s line is written in the score as doubling the choir sopranos from the choir’s 1st pp entry [rehearsal letter 31] which she copies for 17 bars before the magical moment – and this is a passage of pure genius – she glides up to a silvery high G (via an E flat and F). On this recording very clearly the soprano starts to sing only from figure 32 only 5 bars before the ascent. Not that it really matters a jot – I am just curious why there should be that deviation in a performance which is so scrupulous elsewhere. To be honest the soprano does not cover herself in glory in any case; its a notoriously hard passage to bring off but the way this singer scoops and bumps up to the high G is not as beautiful as other versions. The orchestral brass who have been pretty resplendent throughout come into their own during this last ten minute peroration – its beautifully burnished and powerful playing, now this does sound like a German orchestra and a fine one at that.
Throughout the conductor has been very good at giving pauses their due worth. Its one of my many bugbears that all too often a pause is performed as a fractional extension of a note or rest. Surely, it should register as a significant extension of the time value of the beat to which it is applied. So, here’s another inexplicable quirk – having covered him/herself in temporal glory why go off the rails at rehearsal figure 35? For once my sympathies are with Mahler. He cunningly indicates exactly how he wants this passage to phrase – it’s the beautiful unaccompanied choral hymn marked ppp - the choir are excellent. Mahler varies pretty much every bar-length and by changing note values he shows the conductor exactly the rubato he wants. Fatally, as far as this conductor is concerned – Mahler also adds commas which usually should mean a little lift at the end of the note that precedes the comma allowing an articulation and the choir to breath. Here, the comma adds – literally – whole extra beats totally distorting the fluidity of the phrase. Yes, it is another tiny detail and one only someone with a remarkable knowledge of the score or a score to follow would notice. But again, to my mind it is indicative of inconsistent ‘fussing’ over the music. One of my favourite performances of this score is the often-maligned version from Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic. What I like is what I know others dismiss it for; a simplicity of approach totally lacking in affectation. As a result the many passages of truly moving music are able to speak without being weighed down with even more meaning that it merits. This is true of my favourite Mahler cycle – by Gary Bertini and the excellent Cologne Radio SO – who also favours a relatively detached view that benefits most of the symphonies greatly but curiously is possibly less successful in the Resurrection.
So ultimately for me a mixed blessing of a performance of a curate’s egg of a piece – one last thing I’ve never felt ‘works’ – after the marvellous choral climax the last 32 bars of orchestral coda are always an anti-climax even when played and recorded as well as here. I’m sure Mahler experts can justify it in terms of structure and form but I want this piece to end in one last great explosion of glory with all musical guns blazing. I do not think this is a performance by a conductor who is noted for his Mahler conducting – the performance lacks the inevitability and overriding vision-cum-personality of the greatest versions. But as a demonstration of the best of modern engineering it will have the hi-fi buffs in heaven – which is where you would hope to end up after a resurrection after all!