Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphonies Nos. 1-9, 10 (Adagio)
Utah Symphony Orchestra/Maurice Abravanel
Vanguard’s original liner-notes – including sung texts in German and English – are available here
Track and listing at end of review: full artist details included
MUSICAL CONCEPTS MC 182 [10 CDs: c. 634:00]
As a student I remember seeing Abravanel’s Mahler LPs at my local record library, but for some reason I never checked one out. Those pioneering Vanguard releases have now been repackaged by Musical Concepts, in a sturdy cardboard box that just manages to hold 10 discs in paper sleeves and a leaflet containing track details. As for Abravanel, who led the Utah Symphony for more than thirty years, he enjoyed a varied musical career in Europe and the US, both in the opera house and concert hall. His discography is small but diverse, but his Mahler cycle is the most significant of all, especially as it was started when Mahler wasn’t the growth industry he is now.
The First Symphony gets a genial outing, rhythms nicely judged and orchestral detail well caught. The first movement isn’t as atmospheric as some, but there’s a pleasing touch of schmaltz to the string playing that really does underline the Jewish origins of Mahler’s inspiration. Indeed, there’s a warmth and affection to Abravanel’s reading that, while lacking in ultimate thrust and tension, makes for a most engaging listen. There’s noticeable tape hiss in quieter passages, but the sound is generally refined and spacious, even in the riotous finale. Perspectives are natural enough and the playing is just fine; it’s only in the last movement that the symphony starts to meander. That said, the closing pages make up for that, the bass drum present but not overpowering, cymbals, timps and horns suitably imposing.
I suppose if one had to characterise that performance of the First Symphony it would be workmanlike; when Abravanel’s cycle began in 1963 this would have been a solid contender, but by 1974 – when this was recorded – the catalogue was full of far better versions of the First.
The Second Symphony – recorded seven years earlier – gets off to an arresting start, Abravanel opting for a swift, no-nonsense approach to this funeral march. Now this is more like it; there’s tension aplenty, not to mention a craggy grandeur, although the sound is much more upfront than it is in the First.
That elusive pulse is there too, the orchestra far more alert and characterful than before. Only the razored strings and strident brass are a disappointment, but there’s a compensating weight and excitement in those thrilling climaxes. Indeed, there’s a nervous energy that suits this symphony very well, although some of Mahler’s more luminous writing is lost in this very direct, propulsive reading. Perhaps that’s why the Andante isn’t as pliant as it should be, the fierce tuttis robbing the music of all its charm. The macabre Scherzo is marginally more successful, with some of that louche string playing I noticed in the First, but it does seem a tad relentless after a while.
After those bright fanfares and towering tuttis Florence Kopleff’s expressive, clear-toned Urlicht comes as a welcome respite. Abravanel racks up the tension thereafter, but there’s a prosaic quality here that won’t appeal to those who prefer something a bit more poetic – even mysterious. And with that comes fitful progress – and some sour brass. The climaxes are superficially impressive but much too close for my tastes. The choir acquit themselves well and Beverly Sills and Florence Kopleff are quite well matched; that said, the performance is becalmed at this point and never recovers, that glorious conclusion – on the edge of overload – a relief for all the wrong reasons. What a pity, as this all started so well.
I was much more encouraged by the gorgeous expanse of sound at the beginning of the Third Symphony, the timps and bass drum very crisp, the brass baying across the void. Could this be the best performance so far? It’s certainly the most cogently argued, Abravanel keeping the musicians on a tight rein without sacrificing freshness and spontaneity. There’s an added frisson to the music-making that I haven’t heard thus far, the woodwind suitably bucolic. The trombone’s dark stuttering chords and snare drum are splendid too. It’s only in the tuttis that the treble becomes a little fierce, but it’s not nearly as bad as it is in the Resurrection.
With a few exceptions the rest of this symphony lives up to the promise of the first movement, with plenty of telling detail and ear-pricking flourishes. Speeds are pretty much ideal, and while the brass can seem a little untidy their piquancy fits well with the rude character of this performance as a whole. The Tempo di Menuetto has more poise and point than I expected – pizzicato strings superb – the wall-eyed Scherzo played Ohne Hast as it should be; the silvery posthorn – not a flügelhorn – is atmospherically distant. As for Christine Krooskros, her O mensch! is lovely, the orchestral accompaniment radiant. What a pity that the boys’ chorus is too closely recorded – and aggressively so – upsetting an otherwise pleasing and believable balance.
But it’s the hidden reef of the final movement upon which so many performances tend to founder. Abravanel is wonderfully spacious and innig – there’s that full-bodied violin sound again – and one senses he has the symphony’s final destination firmly in his sights. Abravanel builds his climaxes with great conviction, Mahler’s long, noble spans beautifully shaped and projected. Even the bright tuttis can’t detract from the sheer scale and surge of this great finale, crowned by a horizon-stretching climax that will take your breath away. Yes, you’ll hear bumps and thumps in the background – and tape hiss – but that’s hardly a deal-breaker.
Abravanel’s recording of the Fourth Symphony has the splendid Ukrainian-born soprano Netania Davrath in the child-heaven finale. Rest assured, you will find plenty to enjoy and admire before we reach those celestial uplands. There’s lovely, liquid woodwind playing in the first movement, but the orchestra is too closely recorded. And even though ensemble isn’t always immaculate, the light, skipping character of this music is nicely caught. The wie ein fiedel sound of the second movement is also well done and speeds are sensible, with no distracting mannerisms to speak of.
The Adagio has a warmth and clarity of line – not to mention a dry-eyed directness – that can’t fail to please. It’s not always tidy though, and I noticed a tiny bit of break-up in the left channel at one point – an audible edit, perhaps – but that matters little when the work ends with Davrath’s characterful singing. Her diction is clear, and she adopts an appropriately artless tone, as Mahler directed. A fine, unsentimental reading of a symphony that easily succumbs to mawkishness. Not a front-runner perhaps, but worth hearing for Davrath alone.
As we move away from the so-called Wunderhorn symphonies the skies darken and the landscape becomes less certain. The Fifth Symphony opens the gates to this new world with music of startling energy and heft. Certainly, this opening fanfare is impressive, if not especially expansive, Abravanel opting for his usual, no-nonsense speeds throughout. There’s an airiness to the textures that might not appeal to those weaned on the more trenchant readings of Abbado, but there’s enough contrast and character to keep one listening. The recording is remarkably detailed too, nuances easily heard.
Given Abravanel’s general approach it’s not surprising the second movement lacks the last touch of vehemence. Yes, there are genial interludes here, but even when they’re assailed by threatening timps – thrillingly caught, by the way – one isn’t always aware of the elemental forces at play here. As for the all-too-often-lugubrious Adagietto, reappraised by Gilbert Kaplan and others, it’s warmly expressive, if somewhat swooning. The Rondo-Finale is certainly light on its feet at the outset, but later I miss the terrifying weight and thrust that Abbado finds in this music. Once again, the description ‘workmanlike’ springs to mind.
The terrain of the Sixth Symphony, subtitled Tragic, is as inhospitable as it gets. Abravanel phrases the grim tread of the Allegro energico very convincingly indeed. The bright, analytical sound adds to the sense of music on the edge of a breakdown. And if it matters to you he opts for Scherzo/Andante, the former played with splendid bite and brio. The orchestra really seems to relish these strange, halting tunes, the Andante being suitably introspective. The latter isn’t as radiant or as lyrical as it can be, but the finale veers and vacillates with the best of them. You won’t find the sustained angst and energy of, say, Boulez, but this remains a compelling conclusion to a truly bipolar symphony.
The Seventh Symphony, with its spooky night music, is even more unsettling. It’s also one of the more difficult ones to balance and bring off, so I wondered what Abravanel – possibly most comfortable in the early symphonies – would make of it. The dirge-like opening to the first movement is impressive, the B-flat tenor horn well caught. There’s plenty of detail here too. The music is ideally paced, and one senses Abravanel and his band are fiercely engaged. Indeed, this spacious reading ‘breathes’ in a way I’ve not heard in a long time; it’s remarkable for a recording made in 1964. As for progress, it’s unhurried but packed with incident. Just marvellous.
This is shaping up to be a fine Seventh, although some may find the two Nachtmusik movements a touch leaden at times. That said, there’s more than enough illumination here to outweigh such criticism. As for the Scherzo, it’s not as incisive or as outlandish as it can be, but the Rondo-Finale has splendid impetus and swagger; what it may lack in tidiness it compensates for in terms of detail and colour. And despite some sagging at the centre of the movement and misjudgements by the timpanist, this is still a decent Seventh, well recorded.
Reading Paul Shoemaker’s review of the DVD-Audio of the Eighth Symphony I wasn’t at all sure what to expect. True, this recording must have made quite an impact back in 1963, but how does it stack up nearly half a century later? The first movement is slower and more measured than most, the soloists – drawn from the choirs – quite well blended. It’s all much too close though, and the forces sound modest to say the least. There’s not much bass either – I was expecting rather more heft from the Salt Lake organ – but definition in the tuttis is pretty good. Otherwise, it’s just too lumpen for my tastes, with some strange balances and perspectives along the way. So, if you’re waiting for an ‘aesthetic orgasm’ – to use Paul’s phrase – you may well be disappointed.
Disengaging from the downsides, this isn’t a bad performance, it’s just too variable. For instance, the opening of Part II is well played, but it lacks essential mystery. That said, Abravanel brings an unexpected warmth and weight to Mahler’s diaphanous scoring that’s quite appealing; the only problem is that this impedes progress in a lengthy movement where pulse and momentum are more important than just about anywhere else in these symphonies. David Clatworthy’s Ewiger wonnebrand is typical of the solo singing here; it’s well-drilled but it doesn’t communicate much beyond the notes. That’s by no means confined to this performance; indeed, as other recordings of the Eighth confirm, finding a well-balanced solo team is no easy task.
I was drawn to Stanley Kolk’s heroic efforts in Blicket auf – his voice has reach and ring – and Abravanel does build tension rather well. As for the orchestra and choirs, they play and sing with hushed intensity in the run-up to that all-embracing blaze of sound. The goose-bump count is surprisingly high at this point, Abravanel’s steady, expansive finale as transported as one could wish for. Again the sound is astonishing – just listen to those terrific cymbals. If only the rest were this good.
The Ninth Symphony, with its pervasive air of ambiguity and dissolution, is a mighty peak indeed. Abravanel begins the ascent well enough, the start of the Andante comodo wonderfully stoic. This isn’t as gaunt as, say, Klemperer, or as passionate as Abbado, but the extra warmth is not unwelcome. Abravanel isn’t one to rush his fences, or to take risks, and perhaps that’s why this Ninth seems so earthbound at times. Make no mistake, the Utah orchestra plays with real commitment, producing sumptuous sounds in Mahler’s more genial episodes; but really one’s blood ought to freeze in those anguished outbursts, and it simply doesn’t.
Still, there are some ear-pricking passages, the second-movement Ländler winningly done, the Rondo-Burleske suitably sardonic. That’s all very well, but the rest is just too routine. Take the start of the Adagio, for instance; it’s beautifully played, haunting even, but Abbado and others sense an emotional undertow here that eludes Abravanel. That pretty much sums up this Ninth and, to some extent, the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony. The latter is also well played, but it’s curiously disjointed and fails to communicate or convince.
I don’t usually buy box sets – often because I’ve accumulated all or most of the discs when they were released separately – but I do recognise that reasonably priced collections offer newcomers a cheap entrée to music they may not know. And then there’s nostalgia and/or collectors, the latter keen to add yet another clutch of Mahler CDs to their already groaning shelves. For first-timers I’d suggest there’s better value – and greater satisfaction – to be had elsewhere; for instance, EMI’s 16-CD Mahler 150TH Anniversary edition offers much more music in fine, modern performances for roughly the same money as the Abravanel set. Indeed, Simon Rattle’s 14-CD box is even better value, at half that price. Which leaves the collector/compleatist, who’ll want these Utah discs because, like Everest, they’re there.
I’m pleased I’ve heard these pioneering performances at last. They’re rather like sculptures, some not quite finished but with recognisable outlines, while others – the Third and Fourth symphonies especially – are pretty much complete. In that sense this box represents an evolving process, and curious listeners/Mahler buffs might well want it for that alone. As a bonus the original Vanguard liner-notes, by the likes of Jack Diether and Martin Bookspan, are available online.
Compelling and marvellous in parts … I’m pleased I’ve heard these pioneering performances at last.
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888-1896) [49:08]
rec. 27 May-1 June 1974, Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894) [77:21]
Beverly Sills (soprano)
Florence Kopleff (alto)
University of Utah Civic Chorale
rec. 1967, Mormon Tabernacle
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1894-1896) [98:15]
Christine Krooskros (alto)
University of Utah Civic Chorale Women’s Voices
Granite School District Boys’ Choir
rec. 3-10 May 1969, Mormon Tabernacle
Symphony No. 4 in G minor (1899-1901) [51:25]
Netania Davrath (soprano)
rec. 1968, Mormon Tabernacle
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-1902) [61:44]
rec. 27 May-1 June 1974, Mormon Tabernacle
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-1904) [70:46]
rec. 27 May-1 June 1974, Mormon Tabernacle
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1904-1905) [78:00]
rec. December 1964, Mormon Tabernacle
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major (1906-1907) [75:36]
Janine Crader (soprano), Lynn Owen (soprano), Blanche Christensen (soprano), Nancy Williams (alto), Marlena Kleinman (alto), Stanley Kolk (tenor), Malcolm Smith (bass), David Clatworthy (baritone)
University of Utah Choruses
rec. December 1963, Mormon Tabernacle
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1909-1910) [82:13]
rec. 3-10 May 1969, Mormon Tabernacle
Symphony No. 10 in F sharp minor – Adagio (1910) [23:07]
rec. 27 May-1 June 1974, Mormon Tabernacle