Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
4 Movements

Totenfeier (1888)* [26:36)
Symphony No. 10: Adagio** [26:52]
Blumine (1884-1888) [7:22]
Gustav MAHLER/Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) ‘What the wild flowers tell me ‘Arrangement of the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No 3 [9:26]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Alte Oper, Frankfurt *February. 2008; **October 2007; hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt (no date)
VIRGIN CLASSICS 50999 2165762 7

With the best will in the world I’m not really sure I see the point of this disc, which seems to me to be a rather bits-and-pieces programme and not terribly satisfying.

There is one interesting link between two of the pieces, in the shape of Benjamin Britten. As Michael Kennedy points out in his characteristically interesting note, Britten became an enthusiast for Mahler’s music after attending a performance of the Fourth Symphony when he was aged seventeen. Indeed, there’s a live recording of Britten conducting that very symphony in 1961 and I share Tony Duggan’s enthusiasm for it (see review). I was interested to learn from Mr. Kennedy’s note that Britten conducted the first modern performance of ‘Blumine’ as a stand-alone piece at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1967. ‘Blumine’ was the second movement in the original five-movement version of Mahler’s First Symphony, but he excised it in 1896. It was not until 1968 that the five-movement version of the symphony was heard again. The ‘Blumine’ movement is occasionally included in recordings and performances of the symphony nowadays – though it’s more usual to hear it by itself. Personally, I find it an attractive, if rather slender and slight composition and I certainly wouldn’t wish to hear it impeding the flow of the familiar four-movement score. The best solution, perhaps, is that adopted by Sir Simon Rattle, who prefaced his EMI recording of the First Symphony by playing ‘Blumine’. That leaves listeners free to programme their CD player according to choice.

Järvi conducts a perfectly acceptable performance of ‘Blumine’ and the same verdict applies to his traversal of the excerpt from Mahler’s Third Symphony. This is a rarity of passing interest; an arrangement for small orchestra made by Britten in 1941, during his American sojourn. Frankly, there’s little more than curiosity value in this but, in fairness to Britten, it should be remembered that in 1941 opportunities to hear Mahler’s huge score were rare – Boult conducted the UK première six years later, in 1947.

The other two offerings are much more substantial. The Adagio of the Tenth Symphony was one of two performable movements left by Mahler when he died. As is well known, in the 1960s the scholar Deryck Cooke made a performing version of the full score. Since then there have been some other rival editions but none has really challenged the hegemony of the Cooke version. Cooke’s edition – never claimed by him as more than a performing version of the sketches – has been accepted by many conductors but, presumably, not by Paavo Järvi. As I made clear when I reviewed Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording recently, I’m unrepentantly in the Cooke camp. This is another decent performance – in fact, it’s probably the best and most convincing one on the disc. The orchestra plays well and Järvi’s control and shaping is impressive, without quite rivalling the best exponents of this symphony. But one is left with the question: why stop there? Indeed, that’s an opinion that Michael Kennedy seems to share for he concludes his note with the following statement: “If it [the Adagio] was all we had of this symphony it would satisfy. But what follows completes a masterpiece.” Quite so.

The opening item on Järvi’s programme is Totenfeier. This was the original first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony and its composition dates back to about 1888. He added the title Totenfeier (‘Funeral Rite’) in 1891 but in 1894, before the symphony had been completed, he composed a revised version of the first movement in the form that we know it today. Totenfeier was then forgotten until quite recently and Michael Kennedy tells us that when Mahler played a movement bearing this title in a concert of his music in Berlin in 1896, the year following the première of the Second Symphony it was in fact the revised version, taken from the complete symphony, that was played.

In the last few years there have been a couple of recordings. The one which I’ve heard was made in 1999 by Riccardo Chailly and was issued as part of his complete Mahler cycle, coupled with his recording of the complete Second Symphony (see review). Structurally Totenfeier is pretty similar to the first movement of the Second Symphony. However, listeners who are familiar with the symphony will notice many differences of scoring and a few instances where bars were either added or deleted by Mahler during the revision. These differences are interesting but I have to say that in every respect Mahler’s second thoughts seem to me to be infinitely preferable.

Järvi’s performance is somewhat disappointing, I think. The main criticism I’d have is that he relaxes excessively in the slower, more nostalgic episodes, such as the passage between 2:39 and 3:29. Indeed, the music almost becomes becalmed at one point (track 1 6:34 – 10:10) where Järvi’s slow speed not only makes the music sound laboured but also he then has to pick up speed quite rapidly in a way that seems unidiomatic; one wonders how often he’s conducted the full symphony. This tendency to linger excessively largely explains why his performance clocks in at 26:36, whereas the altogether tauter Chailly performance lasts for 23:10. Chailly also has several other things going for him. One is the fabulous playing of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, a band with the music of Mahler in its collective DNA. Furthermore, they’re recorded in the superb acoustic of the Concertgebouw, where the Decca engineers achieved some fine results. And finally, I think Chailly is a much better – perhaps more experienced? - Mahler conductor. If one must have a recording of this early Mahler draft – which certainly is not devoid of interest – then the Chailly version is the one to have and his coupling, as an appendix to the Second Symphony, is much more logical.

Throughout this programme the playing of the Frankfurt orchestra and the recorded sound are good, if not quite of top-notch quality. Järvi’s conducting is efficient but on this evidence he’s not exceptional as a Mahler conductor. The disc is of modest interest as a collection of Mahler fragments but I wouldn’t regard it as an essential purchase. Frankly, this is not a disc that set my pulse racing.

John Quinn