Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888) [56:57]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’* (1894) [92:41]
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-1896)** [106:15]
*Michelle DeYoung (mezzo); *Sally Matthews (soprano); **Sarah Connolly (mezzo)
*Philharmonia Voices; *BBC Symphony Chorus; **Tiffin Boys’ Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 12, 17 April, 8 May 2011 (Nos. 1, 2, 3 respectively)
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD360 [5 CDs: 256:03]
Back in the 1970s and 1980s Lorin Maazel recorded a Mahler symphony cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic for what was then CBS Classics. Naively believing at the time that I had sufficient Mahler recordings in my collection - or perhaps my decision was driven by cost considerations - I only acquired one of those recordings: the Fourth Symphony. Given that Maazel is now in his early 80s and, so far as I know, no longer has an exclusive contract with any recording label it might have been assumed that the chances of more Mahler recordings from him were slender, if not non-existent. However, in 2011 he performed all the symphonies in London with the Philharmonia and here we have what is promised as the first instalment in a project to release all of those performances on CD.
Many of the concerts were reviewed by my London-based Seen and Heard colleagues. My recollection was that there was a mixed response to the series though several of the concerts were very favourably received. In fact, though, when I looked back in the Seen and Heard archive I found that only one of the three performances included here had been reviewed by our team: Jim Pritchard heard the performance of the Third Symphony though I noticed that Michael Cookson heard a performance of the First Symphony in Manchester just a few days after the reading that is preserved here on disc. Deliberately, I haven’t re-read either of their reviews - though I will once I’ve sent off this review.
The notes accompanying these discs - the original programme notes, I suspect - are by Julian Joseph and I found a wonderful phrase in his note about the First Symphony. Writing of the unusual start of the third movement in which a single, deliberately wheezy double-bass plays over a mechanical timpani beat, he says that this ‘must have been utterly bewildering to Mahler’s first audience - as if an old tramp had walked on to sing on the stage of the Court Opera.’ What a marvellous image that is. It reminds us how strange and discomforting - how grotesque, even - Mahler’s scores must have seemed when they were first unveiled. Nowadays, when conductors and orchestras have these demanding scores at their fingertips it’s well-nigh impossible for us to imagine the initial impact of Mahler’s symphonies.
That observation is relevant when considering Maazel’s performance of the First Symphony. The opening nature-sounds, both the distant ones and those which are more ‘present’, are all in place but I don’t really sense much tension. Later on, the episode based on the song Ging heut Morgen übers Feld sounds direct and straightforward but not until the very end of the movement do I feel that this is an ‘exuberant Allegro’ as suggested in Joseph’s note. Coming back to my point in the paragraph above, the playing is expert but it’s all rather cultivated and calculated; there’s no wildness about it. Maybe Maazel set out simply to impart a genial character to the Ging heut Morgen music and that’s a wholly defensible point of view but I just feel there’s more in the music than we hear in this performance.
There’s good vitality and swing in what Julian Joseph rightly calls the ‘energetic country dance’ music in the second movement. The trio is delicately phrased, though it does sound a bit self-conscious; the effect would probably be fine when heard live but may become irritating on repeated hearing. The finale erupts and the opening pages are exciting. The generous melody intoned first by the strings (from 4:06) sounds gorgeous but what troubles me is the delivery of the bars leading up to that moment (from 3:20). This passage seems greatly over-extended and to be quite honest I wondered if the tune would ever arrive. To be fair to Maazel he’s very successful in bringing out the many pre-echoes of the first movement of ‘Resurrection’ that this big tune contains - no wonder Mahler said he was laying the hero of the First Symphony to rest in that Totenfeier movement. However, the way Maazel pulls that short introductory passage about is symptomatic, I fear, of rather too many occasions in this movement when either the rhetoric is overdone or the music is taken more broadly than it can bear. This finale is not, in any case, one that flows completely seamlessly but Maazel’s tendency to linger does pull the music out of shape too much for comfort. All in all, this is not one of the best accounts of this symphony that I’ve heard.
The Second gets off to a good, solid start with plenty of weight in the playing and in the interpretation. In this movement one of the potential problems for the conductor lies in the several passages in which Mahler eases back the tempo and the mood changes to one of nostalgic reflection. How to pace these passages? They must be given the necessary space but too expansive a tempo risks losing momentum and making the music sound unduly sentimental. The first of these passages occurs fairly soon after the start (2:42 - 3:50) and Maazel is perilously slow. This is a harbinger of the way similar episodes are treated as the movement unfolds. The last such section (19:20 - 21:24) is the most self-indulgent of all but by then I’d already wearied of the approach to these passages. It’s perhaps unfortunate that the last recording of this symphony to which I’d listened, just a couple of weeks before, was Jonathan Nott’s recording, also live, for Tudor which was so admired by Dan Morgan (review). I find that Nott is so much tauter than Maazel, not just in these slower passages but throughout the movement and he takes 21:43 overall to Maazel’s 25:13. Klaus Tennstedt (review) is much closer to Maazel in both timing (25:02) and approach but for me Tennstedt gets away with it through greater magnetism, though I know that some find his performance too indulgent. In fairness to Maazel, however, I must record that when he resists the temptation to linger he has a grip on the music and his reading has power; as a result much of the movement is impressive.
The second movement is restful and seductively phrased - arguably some of the phrasing is a bit too calculated. In the more turbulent episode (from 5:11) the music is strongly projected. The third movement is wholly successful, not least on account of some very acute playing by the Philharmonia. In ‘Urlicht’ Michelle DeYoung sings with a very vibrato-rich tone. For my taste it’s too much of a good thing. According to the track-listing Maazel’s reading of the finale takes 38:32; in fact it plays for 37:16, which is still pretty expansive. There’s much to admire here. Once or twice I would have preferred it if he’d moved the music along a bit more - for instance in the lead-up to the famous percussion crescendi, which in themselves are very impressive. Overall, however, Maazel keeps a tight rein on proceedings and brings out the drama in Mahler’s music convincingly and excitingly, knitting its elements together very well. The choir sings well for him and Sally Matthews’ contribution is satisfactory but once again Michelle DeYoung employs too much vibrato for my taste in her solo at ‘O Glaube!’ The ending is very impressive and one thing slightly surprised me - and pleased me. Given his penchant for expansive tempi elsewhere in the symphony I had expected that at the singers’ fortissimo ‘Aufersteh’n’ Maazel would pull the speed back rhetorically. In fact he does quite the opposite, pushing the music forward and thereby investing the music with a fine sense of exaltation. It’s effective and paves the way for a tremendous conclusion. Despite some reservations I found a great deal to admire in this performance, including the razor-sharp playing of the Philharmonia.
The performance of the Third is rather extraordinary. The opening is projected in a very definite fashion with lots of dark power. Throughout this performance the percussion is accorded quite a degree of prominence and in this first movement one thing that I like is that one can actually hear the soft tattoos on the bass drum. These are important and all too often one can’t hear them. Here they’re well defined while remaining hushed and that’s welcome. The crucial trombone solos are splendidly done. The first (starting at 7:33) establishes the instrument as a baleful, imposing presence, its music sounding like a druidical incantation. What a pity the player isn’t credited in the booklet. As the movement unfolds Maazel brings out all the drama and power in the writing with lots of sharply etched detail. True, the martial music is weighty and some may feel it’s a little deliberate at times. I missed the sheer swagger and the hedonism of Bernstein’s superb 1961 New York recording (review) but Maazel’s elemental, darker approach has its own logic and brings its own rewards. He offers us a primeval vision of Spring; it may not be Spring marching in with what Mahler referred to as ‘loud jubilant noise’ (my italics) but it’s pretty compelling. This may not be how I’d always want to hear this movement but, my goodness, Maazel held my attention throughout and the Philharmonia delivers for him - in spades.
The second movement is done with clean textures and sharp articulation. Occasionally I thought perhaps the pacing was a little too deliberate but for the most part the music is nicely turned. The third movement is pungent and strongly projected. Julian Joseph aptly says that it sounds ‘as if all nature were making faces and sticking out its tongue’ and you get a good sense of that here. The posthorn interludes are well done, the instrument nicely distanced. Sarah Connolly sings the Nietzsche setting in the fourth movement with fine feeling. Maazel is one of those conductors who get the oboe and cor anglais to use upward portamento in this movement. I first encountered that effect in Simon Rattle’s 1997 recording (review) and I’m still not sure I care for it - though I admit that it does seem appropriate. There’s a spirited account of the short fifth movement, with good choral contributions, before we reach the long slow finale. This is a conspicuous success. Maazel controls and paces the music expertly and he’s helped by splendid playing from the orchestra. I admire Maazel’s patience; he lets the music unfold with a seeming inevitability and his reading is solemn and dedicated. There’s a sense of genuine grandeur at the end. This performance of the extensive finale is a transcendent culmination of a thought-provoking and splendidly executed account of this huge symphony. As is the case with all three performances there’s no applause at the end. After the Third I suspect the editor had to move pretty smartly to exclude what I imagine was a vociferous ovation and the sound seems to cut off rather abruptly; the final chord doesn’t fully resonate, which is a pity.
So, Maazel’s Mahler cycle is well and truly launched on CD. I must say I like Signum’s idea to release the performances in batches rather than spacing them out as individual releases. One benefit, I suspect, is that collectors who follow this cycle will get a sense of flow. As you’ll have gathered from my comments above, this initial release is uneven but I wonder how realistic it is to expect that one conductor will be equally successful in every Maher symphony. As it is, if you invest in this set you’ll get a decent but not earth-shattering First, a Second that is considerably better and a Third that is absolutely gripping. This Maazel cycle may be well worth following on disc and I look forward to the next instalment.
Julian Joseph’s notes are good as is the recorded sound.
Masterwork Index: Mahler Symphony 1 ~~ Symphony 2 ~~ Symphony 3
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