Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.2 Resurrection (1894) [85:11]
Alice Coote (mezzo); Natalie Dessay (soprano)
Orfeón Donostiarra
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Alte Oper, Frankfurt, 6-8 May 2009. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6945860 [23:17 + 61:54]

Some months ago I reviewed a disc of music by Mahler from this same conductor and orchestra. Their programme included ‘Totenfeier’, the original version of the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony. I’m afraid I was rather underwhelmed by the performance and, indeed, by the whole disc but even so I was interested to see what Paavo Järvi would make of the complete symphony.

The first movement gets off to a good, solid start. However, when Mahler eases into a slower, more reflective episode (2:34 - 3:35) Järvi adopts a dangerously expansive tempo and the same happens in a more extended similar episode a little later on (6:12–9:30). In fairness, this is entirely consistent with his approach to the same stretches of the ‘Totenfeier’ movement, so one shouldn’t be surprised. However, as was the case on the earlier disc, I think he sacrifices too much tension in these passages. Much of the movement is perfectly satisfactory but these passages are just too much of a good thing, I think. In the last analysis I didn’t feel stirred by this reading of Mahler’s massive funeral march.

At the very start of II the little agogic distortions that Mahler writes into the score are, perhaps, observed a little too fully by the conductor but overall Järvi’s treatment of this movement is a success. He obtains some nice delicate playing from the orchestra and I enjoyed the reading, even if there were a few occasions when I felt he was just a bit too inclined to stress small expressive points little excessively. There are more instances of deft playing in III and the thunderous premonition of the finale (7:52 - 8:28) is suitably shattering. Alice Coote makes a predictably fine showing in ‘Urlicht’, offering well-focused and expressive singing. She’s well supported by Järvi.

The massive finale is proficiently played. However, as with the first movement, I didn’t feel as stirred by the music as I would expect to be – and as other conductors have achieved in my experience. Mahlerians such as Simon Rattle (his Birmingham recording) or Otto Klemperer offer so much more and dig so much deeper into the drama, I feel. As I’m unsure if this Järvi recording is a studio one or made live – there’s no audience noise that I could hear - I’ve deliberately refrained from comparisons with a live recording such as the extraordinary, visionary Tennstedt traversal (review) because there one is in an entirely different league emotionally.

Even though Järvi’s account of the finale doesn’t really grip me there’s much to admire in the playing. The percussion section, powerfully reported by the engineers, play incisively and the brass are excellent. At the grosse Appell the solo flute sounds really bird-like. I’m not quite sure why a choir was brought all the way from Spain to Frankfurt to take part in this recording but the members of Orfeón Donostiarra justify their involvement with some very good singing. Their first entry (20:32) is hushed almost to the point of inaudibility and as the final stretch of the finale unfolds they demonstrate their worth at all volume levels. When the choir and soloists sing ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du’ at full volume (32:50) the Spanish singers – the tenors especially – really go for it. In the vocal part of the finale Alice Coote acquits herself very well once more. She’s joined by Natalie Dessay. This isn’t repertoire with which I’d normally associate this singer but she makes a good contribution. The final pages are impressive, with the organ a telling presence: some may feel, however, that the bells are a little reminiscent of Boris Godounov.

This recording of Mahler’s Second has much to commend it. The quality of the singing and playing is high and the recorded sound is good. However, I don’t think that Paavo Järvi’s vision of the score is sufficiently compelling to raise this performance from being a decent one to a distinguished one. The Resurrection Symphony is a hugely theatrical work and it should thrill and move the listener; this performance doesn’t achieve that. There are umpteen versions of this symphony in the catalogue. Tony Duggan has evaluated several in his survey of recordings of the Mahler symphonies and, from personal experience, I’d endorse his enthusiasm for several of the versions he mentions. Furthermore, we can probably expect more versions of this symphony as 2011 unfolds and the centenary of Mahler’s death is marked – new ‘live’ recordings from Mariss Jansons in Amsterdam and from Rattle in Berlin are just being issued right now and I’m eager to hear both. I’m afraid that, despite its merits, this Järvi version can’t match several recordings that delve deeper into the music and produce a more compelling experience for the listener.

John Quinn

A well played version of this imposing symphony but several other recordings offer a more compelling experience.