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Scarlatti Sonatas Vol 2

REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection [84:28]
Cynthia Clayton (soprano); Melanie Sonnenberg (mezzo)
Houston Symphony Chorus; Texas Music Festival Orchestra/Franz Anton Krager
rec. live, 7 June 2014, Moores Opera House, University of Houston, Texas
Texts not included
5.0 DTS HD MA 24/96khz surround sound/2.0 DTS HD MA 24/96khz Stereo
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS BD-A no catalogue number [84:51]

Just recently, I reviewed another BD-A from this same label which featured the Texas Music Festival Orchestra in an ambitious programme of music by Nielsen, Britten and Bartók (review). As I explained in my introduction to that review, the Immanuel and Helen Olshan Texas Music Festival was established in 1990. Each year it takes the form of a four-week summer school during which some 90 young musicians, aged between 18 and 30, who are “on the cusp of a professional career” receive intensive tuition from, among others, players from the Houston Symphony and the orchestra of Houston Grand Opera. During the Festival the students give a number of concerts. In fact, this present Mahler performance was given just two weeks before the aforementioned concert of music by Nielsen and others.

To the best of my knowledge there is only one other performance of this symphony that’s been issued as a single-disc version on BD-A; that’s the 1975 Zubin Mehta reading with the Wiener Philharmoniker on Decca about which Dan Morgan so rightly enthused, at least in terms of the performance, though he was slightly less impressed with the BD-A sonics (review). Unlike Dan, I had never heard the Mehta performance before encountering its BD-A incarnation and I found much to admire (review). I thought it would be inappropriate to make detailed comparisons between this new recording and the Mehta. For one thing Mehta’s record was made under studio conditions. Furthermore, he had the services of one of the world’s great orchestras whereas the TMFO consists of players who, however talented, had only been playing together for a matter of days when this one-off performance took place. However, I did make one or two spot comparisons, just to check the respective tempi at certain points.

Franz Anton Krager starts off purposefully in the big first movement. Indeed, his core tempo seemed just a little on the brisk side to me. Mehta is just a fraction steadier and that allows him to impart rather more weight to the music. One consequence of Krager’s pacing of the march is that when he gets to the slower, nostalgic episodes, the first of which is at 5:44, there’s a very significant contrast indeed between this dreamy passage and the preceding music. That’s accentuated because Krager is very expansive in this passage and in the subsequent iterations of it. Overall, however, I liked Krager’s approach to the movement; he brings out the drama and tension in the music and the results are exciting. In the slower sections, to which I’ve referred, Krager’s orchestra invest the music with no little feeling and the string portamenti are very well executed. The build-up to the end of the movement (from 18:30) is impressive in many respects. However, because Krager’s tempo is just a fraction too fast – at least for my taste – the start of this build-up seems to lack mystery; it’s just a bit matter of fact.

Krager takes the second movement steadily – too steadily in my view. Overall he takes 11:50 whereas Mehta requires 10:12. I think Mehta’s pacing is spot on whereas with Krager the music seems a bit earthbound. Krager is especially well served by his string section in this movement. On the other hand, Krager’s pacing of the third movement seems just right and the playing is characterful, conveying the sardonic nature of the music. The nostalgic episodes come off well, too. It’s a pity that the tuning of the opening timpani strokes is a touch approximate.

In ‘Urlicht’ Melanie Sonnenberg sings with a warm, full tone, which I like. However, it seems to me that she tries too hard to be expressive at ‘da kam ein Engelein’; the same trait is in evidence in the finale in the passage beginning at ‘O Glaube, mein Herz’.

The finale is dramatic and often very powerful. The offstage brass effects are very well done. The pair of huge percussion crescendos from nothing are terrific and introduce a driven and dramatic reading of the long central section. When, at 16:03, Mahler tips us over the abyss, reprising music first heard in the third movement, it’s an electrifying experience. The spatial effects at the große Appel come off very well indeed. The choir’s first entry is successfully managed, by which I mean the singing is hushed but not so quiet as to be indistinct; even at a low volume there’s definition in the singing of the Houston Symphony Chorus. Shortly afterwards we hear for the first time soprano Cynthia Clayton. It seems to me that she rather overdoes the vibrato with the result that her singing sounds somewhat tremulous at times. Overall, the two soloists are satisfactory and I’m sure that they made a good impression at the performance itself but they don’t really compare with the best on disc, of which there are a lot.

The closing pages, starting with the choir’s loud, affirmative ‘Aufersteh’n’ are fervent indeed. You sense that everyone on the platform is giving it all they have – though I should hasten to add that neither the singers nor the players coarsen their tone. The ending is very powerful, the brass and percussion making thrilling contributions. Unsurprisingly, there’s a vociferous ovation which is well deserved. The audience wins a brownie point from me by waiting for two or three seconds after the last chord before showing their appreciation.

I’ll sum up the performance in a moment but what of the recorded sound? In many ways engineer John Gladney Proffitt has done a very good job. The sound is present and exciting. The woodwind, brass and percussion seem to have microphones positioned quite closely to them and these sections of the orchestra are reported excitingly. One side effect, though, is that in the first movement particularly I thought the balance rather disadvantaged the strings. It’s arguable, of course that this reflects Mahler’s scoring and so approximates to what one would hear in the concert hall. I listened to this BD-A using the 2.0 Stereo option and the results were exciting. However, I should report that when I played the Mehta disc for a couple of spot comparisons I had to make a very hasty volume reduction; the Decca recording is very powerful indeed.

I should mention one other point in case it applies to other people who acquire this disc. I play BD-A discs through a Marantz UD 7007player, which is linked to my hi-fi rather than to my TV. Normally, when I insert a BD-A I simply press the ‘play’ button on the remote control and the disc plays. When I inserted this disc in my machine and pressed ‘play’ nothing happened. It was only after a great deal of frustrated pressing of just about every button on the remote and on the player itself that I discovered, by sheer good luck, that by repeatedly pressing the ‘Enter’ button on the remote I could get the disc to play perfectly satisfactorily.

So, let me sum up this release. The young musicians of the Texas Music Festival Orchestra do a fine job. They are tremendously proficient and their playing is really very good indeed. True, there are a few minor imperfections but nothing of consequence. Towards the end I thought I detected a few signs that some of the players are tiring but who could blame them and, in any case, everyone gathers themselves for the final peroration. What I find remarkable is that a performance of this quality could be given by an orchestra assembled, I presume, just a few days beforehand. One or two aspects of Franz Anton Krager’s interpretation caused my eyebrows to rise but overall it’s clear that he’s got a very firm grip on the score and he has managed not only to rehearse his young orchestra in a fairly short space of time but also to impart to them his vision of it; that’s some achievement. The soloists aren’t the best I’ve heard in this symphony but they are satisfactory while the chorus does a fine job. If I were pressed to offer a library recommendation I’d have to say that if you want a BD-A version of this symphony then the choice has to be Mehta. However, there’s a great deal to admire in this Texan performance and I don’t believe that anyone who hears it will feel disappointed.

John Quinn



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