2010 Top 10

Of all the music, of all kinds, released this year, these are my favorites, in alphabetical order:

Die Zauberflöte, MozartRené Jacobs, conductor, Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor; Daniel Behle, Marlis Petersen, Dainiel Schmutzhard, Sunhae Im, Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, Marcos Fink

René Jacobs has finished his series of recordings of the mature Mozart operas with this superb and wonderful Magic Flute that is easily one of the finest ever made and also the most constructively unique. Among period instrument and performance styles, Jacob’s work stands out from his peers via the orchestral sound he develops, his non-dogmatic way with singers and his attention to a dramatic ideal. He, perhaps, has a point to prove, but it’s not about the proper way to recreate Mozart, it’s about the proper way to present a staged drama entirely in an audio format. His achievement in this is both so full and also so natural and subtle that it almost escapes notice.

Jacobs is undemonstrative as a conductor, so it’s worth pointing out how fine the fundamentals of the recording are, the kinds of things that a conductor is responsible for preparing before the curtain lifts or the disc starts spinning. In an era in which both modern and period orchestras sound very much like each other, the sound Jacobs gets – woody, warm, with crunchy brass, a pleasingly brittle power – is remarkable for it’s color, sensuousness and intimacy. The singing is excellent throughout, and again notable for its naturalness in what is an unnatural form. All the voices are terrific, especially Behle as Tamino, Petersen as Tamina and Schmutzhard as Papageno. They not only sing the music but inhabit the characters. Jacobs maintains a relaxed sense of phrasing even at the fastest tempos (his Allegro in the Overture is incredibly fast) and so the singers always sound like they have something to say, articulating the notes and words clearly. Behle is especially fine. He shines in the company of his peers, who include Fritz Wunderlich and Nicolai Gedda. While those other two great singers draw you to the beauty of their voices and their singing, Behle sings with equal musicality and better characterization; it’s not him but Tamino we hear, the music and the things he thinks and feels.

And this, what makes this such a great recording, and a great opera recording, is the overall focus on the drama. It’s what Jacobs has done throughout his series, which is now one of the great documents of recorded music. There is something he does that I have not heard on any recording, studio or live, before; during the stretches of dialogue he has moments of continuo playing and snatches of song and vocalization from some of the other characters in the scene. This is scintillating, it makes the listening experience vivid and, in the audio dimension, integrates the spoken drama into the sung dialogue. But the overall thing, the subtle and profound feature that illuminates his care and musical intelligence, is to contain the entire recording within the frame of a story. Die Zauberflöte is Mozart’s story, and Jacobs and musicians tell it to us with love and dedication, they give us Mozart. It’s pretty simple, really. This tale is one of the great works in Western art music, it needs little more than skillful, sympathetic telling. This is as skillful and sympathetic as it gets, and that fundamental simplicity clears away what now seems like a burdensome legacy of demonstrative, self-involved performances.

Double Sextet/2×5, Reich – Eighth Blackbird and Bang On a Can

The first piece won the Pulitzer, and it’s a great example of late period Reich. 2×5, however, is even better, a complete knockout that shows the composer’s previously hidden prog-rock roots – maybe even he doesn’t know about them? – in a bright, chiming mesh of polyrhythms with such appeal that there’s some danger one’s dancing limbs will draw and quarter the listener. What a way to go.

I’m New Here – Gil Scott-Heron

The return of Gil Scot-Heron to active music is noteworthy in itself. That the result is the finest record from this great and important artist is a bit mind-boggling. The balance on this disc between modern R&B, the tragedy of worn out lives and the lyricism of life itself is impossible to describe and impossible to miss.

Katrina Ballads – Ted Hearne

This continues to excite and satisfy with the way Hearne harnesses anger and indignation into focussed, powerful, smart and incisive musical expression. Deeply impressive both as a work of composed music and a performance.

Mahler Symphony No. 1 – Netherlands Symphony Orchestra

Mahler Symphony No. 2 – Simon Rattle

Mahler Symphony No. 4 – Phillipe Herreweghe

Discussed here.

Radif Suite – Amir ElSaffar and Hafez Modirzadeh

My top jazz recording of the year.

Reservoir – Isabelle O’Connell

A great recording that does everything a recital of new music should do, present the pianist’s musical intelligence, taste and skill. The set of pieces O’Connell has chosen is wins through both variety and quality, they are exceptionally well made works from a group of composers who all have distinctive voices. And her playing is fabulous, technically precise, physically powerful and so very musical.

Television Landscape – William Brittelle

A great work of long form pop composition, a great record, and a great listening experience, something that connects the mind’s memories to the culture at large in a moving, beautiful way.

Honorable Mention:

Cortical Songs, Cathedral City, sweet light crude, Good Things, I Learned The Hard Way, Lift, Another Lifetime, City Noir, Puer Natus Est, Ombra Cara, Glass Violin Concerto No. 2, Solo, Chill Morn He Climb Jenny, Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos, Stravinsky: The Fairy’s Kiss, Jeremy Denk Plays Ives, For 2 (Alva Noto), Farad: Vocoder Music 1969-1982, Écailles de Lune, Grinderman 2, Into The Trees, Ya-Ka-May, Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

UPDATED: Can’t forget Tweet-Tweet!

This Year’s Mahler

It’s a grand twenty-four months for the composer whose time has come – this year is the sesquicentennial of his birth and next is the centennial of his death – but it’s been marked in relatively modest ways on the recording front. There was the release of two competing ‘Complete’ boxed sets, each with different contents (reviewed in more detail here). Naxos issued their good quality budget box of the Symphonies, a solid but not top level collection, and the price is not competitive against great sets like the Bertini recordings and the aforementioned boxes that came out this year. An unusual set, coming out in the States on December 14, is the “People’s Edition,” a collection from the Deutsche Grammophon vaults voted on by listeners. It’s an uneven choice, with too many mediocre recordings to recommend, especially against DG’s Complete Edition. The Abbado led Symphony 3 is a particular weakness, although the Giulini Symphony No. 9 is an unexpected and pleasant result.

The EMI Complete Works is well-chosen and now the first choice for anyone looking for a Mahler box, either as a first purchase or an addition to their collection. There were three new recordings of Mahler symphonies this year, as well, that are not only notable but essential, even extraordinary, and are not just my choices for best Mahler of the year, but will be on my final year end list for all music:

  • Symphonic Poem in Two Parts, “Titan,” Symphony No. 1Jan Willem de Vriend, Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. Certainly the most important recording of this symphony ever made, and perhaps the greatest. De Vriend has completely rethought the work and the result is something like sitting in a concert hall to hear the premiere of something totally new and unknown. Going back to Mahler’s first score, he includes the “Blumine” movement that was later discarded, not as a curiosity but as an integral part of the work, making it a five part symphonic poem closer to the radical shift Mahler made in the Symphony No. 5 that the other group of “Wunderhorn” works. The playing is the equal of the finest orchestras and De Vriend’s approach to every note and phrase is Mahlerian as it gets. I hope he has more in store.
  • Symphony No. 2Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic, Kate Royal, Magdalena Kozena, Rundfunkchor Berlin. Rattle has previously recorded one of the great performances of this work. This new release, download only, comes directly from three concerts recorded at the end of October of this year. I don’t know if the Berlin Philharmonic planned on release this ahead of time, but I can believe that when they heard the concerts and the tapes they went mad with the need to package this and make it available to the public. There is one specific flaw in the performance: At the Molto Pesante portion of the first movement, Rattles sudden ritardando is jarring, it focuses attention on itself rather than the music making. Other than that, this is so great as to be unreal. The playing is spectacular in the extreme, and Rattles control of the music, his shape of this enormous score, is perfect in a way I had never previously imagined. The musical and dramatic narrative unfolds at a pace that is musically and emotionally sublime, completely involving and spellbinding. In every moment, one is lost in the music in a way that is rare in recordings and performances. One of the greatest Mahler performances one will ever hear.
  • Symphony No. 4 – Philippe Herreweghe, L’Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Rosemary Joshua. Available currently as a download, released on disc in the States next month, this is an ‘Early Music’ approach to Mahler with the distinguished conductor’s own orchestra. The instruments are quite close to what we commonly hear nowadays, the main difference is that the strings have the lighter quality familiar from period orchestras. More important is how the instruments are played. Herreweghe has cultivated a stunningly colorful sound, his orchestra plays with a sense of style that is unique and appears to be very old world, based in the regional and national characteristics that were prevalent before the development of recording technology and radio. His conception of this symphony flows with unforced naturalness, Mahler is there in every moment and the drama speaks clearly without exaggeration. This is one of the most musical Mahler recordings I know, and matches the great MTT recording in terms of accomplishment, while offering an ear-opening counterpoint. An exceptional end to an exceptional year for Mahler.

Baby Playlist, #3

Philip Glass: Orpheé; Portland Opera, Anne Manson

This will certainly please fans of Glass, and is a fascinating example of how his late style is developing. Like La Belle et la Bête, this is an operatic adaptation of an accidental libretto, i.e. the script from a Cocteau movie. It suffers from the same problematic detail, Glass trying to wedge the French phrases, diction and meter into his fairly rigid style, which produces a mix of good vocal music and parts where the singers have to try and spit out the words with compressed desperation. That being said, the music is fine and surprising. After going through a polytonal period, Glass seems to be synthesizing different structural ideas into his usual juxtaposition of phrases, and he’s using a lot of rhythms that are new to him. Large sections sound more than a little like ragtime/cakewalk in a way that is completely charming and adds drama and expression. As always, he quotes himself, even using sections identical to the previous work, but this new piece is mostly fresh and winning, seemingly fine live performances at the Portland Opera from the musicians, the conductor and a large cast, especially Philip Cutlip in the title role, and a good recording.

An interesting interview, but Ainsley is wrong about Cocteau being the first to use special effects in movies. Georges Melies, anyone?

Mahler: Songs with Orchestra ; Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

The final CD in Tilson Thomas’ Mahler cycle is as good as one would expect. Hampson is great in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Graham is even better – deeply expressive, supple, beautiful tone – in the Rückert-Lieder. The set is rounded off with five selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the last track is “Urlicht.” The playing and conducting are beyond exquisite, the SACD sound is like sitting inside the orchestra. SFS Media has produced the finest Mahler cycle, by far – nothing else is in the same league in terms of playing, musicality, expression. One may not agree with the interpretive choices, but there is no Mahler playing like this. The only drawback is the price of the discs, which for Mahler lovers should be no object, but perhaps down the road the producers might repackage it all in a box, for their additional profit and at some savings to the consumer.

Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 4, Kanon Pokajanen ; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Estonia Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tönu Kaljuste

Severely beautiful, and very welcome on CD (the only previous recording had been an iTunes download in the DG Concerts series). Pärt is slowly, inexorably exploring Neo-Romanticism, and his Symphony No. 4 is minimalist in the way Bruckner is minimalist, a large, open scale architecture filled with repeated, small scale gestures. The second, “Affannoso” movement is mesmerizing. The make-weight, excerpts from his Kanon Pokajanen , is luminous, but considering ECM is rehashing this material and charging full price for the CD, it’s not a great value.

Steve Reich: Double Sextet, 2×5 ; eighth blackbird, Bang on Can

Reich is always good, and these are his finest pieces since City Life. It’s also the most sheerly enjoyable Reich recording out there. Double Sextet is like Hard-Bop Reich, taking elements of the “blues” of the early masterpiece, Four Organs, filtering it through the developments of Three Tales, and creating a piece of music that swings more than anything I’ve heard from him. It’s extroverted, basically simple but not simplistic. 2×5 is Reich as Prog-Rock and is not far removed from ultra-high order King Crimson; shimmering guitar, razor edge, interlocking complex rhythms, even a drum kit. The former piece won the Pulitzer, the latter may be even better. Great performances and a great CD.

P.S. The baby seemed to dig Mahler and Reich the best.

September Songs

I don’t have the standard recommended listings this month; since the performing season gets its official start, I’ll be doing some individual posts on different organizations, what they’ve been doing and what they have coming up. Expect the usual suspects, i.e. City Opera, the Phil, Miller Theater, Issue Project Room . . .

I do want to point out some worthwhile recorded/streaming audio that will be coming out in September:

UPDATED: Fixed typo, added link to Oval appearance

Dream Mahler

There’s never enough Mahler, or, when you may think there’s enough, there’s something more about Mahler that you hadn’t imagined . . .

Deutsche Grammaphon has already released their fine Complete Mahler Edition, and now they are preparing, with some help, an additional Mahler Sympony box-set for November release. They call this one “The People’s Edition” because they are eliciting public opinion on the contents, so weigh in with your own Dream Mahler. I’m looking forward to what comes out of this process, which is something new in classical music marketing.

An added benefit is that DG/Decca/Phillips are bringing out of print titles from the back catalogue into circulation, at least temporarily. This is big news, because there are some great recordings in the vaults; the Mengleberg Fourth Symphony, the weirdly good Scherchen Seventh, a Václav Neumann Fifth and what looks to be an intriguing set from Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra. The site also allows you to stream the audio from these recordings while you’re making your own list.

Go vote, Mahler and the world need you! The cycle shaping up so far is decent but unsurprising, and unfortunately has the lifeless Abbado and Berlin Philharmonic Mahler Third, when there are many better ones to choose from.

Mahler Lives, Mahler Grooves

Gustav Mahler is now one hundred fifty years old, and as his music lives more vibrantly every day in our ears, minds and hearts, we will continue to celebrate his birth more than we will commemorate his death. We are in the midst of a unique period, stretching from July 7 of this year (his birthday) to next May 18, which will mark one hundred years since his death. The compression between these two dates, the odd retrogression of fifty years, adds an unnameable, and very Mahlerian, poignancy to dedicated musical events, like the continuous streaming music festival at WQXR through July 14.

It also makes for a good reason (excuse?) to discuss something, along with Mahler, that makes me tingle; the boxed set. Universal Music and the EMI Group have dug through their substantial bodies of recordings and put together respective 150th anniversary/birthday boxes, each proclaiming themselves to be the complete body of the composer’s work. Curiously, the contents of each box differs, although I don’t think it has to do with Universal calling theirs the “Complete Edition,” while for EMI it’s “The Complete Works.”

This requires a bit of context to explain. Mahler’s common body of work comprises the Symphonies 1-9, Das Lied von der Erde, the Adagio movement from his unfinished Symphony 10, and the song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder, Rückert-Lieder and Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Not ubiquitous, but frequently appended, are an early, immature song cycle, Das klagende Lied (which has all the elements of Mahler without the technical and structural polish), and various completions of the 10th, the most well-known being that by Deryck Cooke. There are also piano reductions of the songs that can be heard in recitals and on recordings.

But there’s more. His Symphony No. 1 was originally in five movements, not the current four, with an Andante section following the opening. The symphony was initially performed with what is know as the “Blumine” movement, but Mahler later cut that from the work. It’s been appearing more frequently on recordings as a separate curiosity, although there is also a new and truly great recording of the symphony that successfully reincorporates the movement back into the overall form (I urgently recommend the recording, it’s not only unlike any Mahler I’ve ever heard before, but is musically extraordinary)[UPDATED: added link]. Both these new boxes include “Blumine” as a separate, so far so complete. They also include the “Klavierquartettsatz,” a single movement of the perhaps abortive Piano Quartet in A Minor, written when Mahler was a teenager. It’s been fairly commonly heard this year, as it was featured on the soundtrack for “Shutter Island,” not only as musical accompaniment but as an element of the plot. Again, this fragment is in both boxes. Each box also has the “Lieder und Gesänge,” a set of uncollected songs composed between 1880 and 1889. Here, though, the boxes start to diverge slightly. The catalogs differ in the EMI separates three truly uncollected songs, “Im Lenz,” “Winterlied” and “Maitanz im Grünen,” under the heading “Lieder,” while Universal includes these in the “Gesänge” sangs, while also seasoning their set with orchestrations by Luciano Berio and Harold Byrns. From this point, each complete box is complete (and incomplete) in different ways.

EMI includes both the orchestral Rückert-Lieder, a classica recording with Dame Janet Baker conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, as well as Thomas Hampson’s wonderful recital version, and augments these with seven additional versions of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” an interesting but mysterious decision, as well as tagging on Alice Coote singing “Urlicht.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of demonstrating the huge vocal riches in their library, as the tracks go from Dame Janet to Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Brigitte Fassbaender. That’s impressive. Neither set has complete piano-vocal versions of the songs, and in fact the Universal box has none. That box is truly the complete one, though. There is another extant orchestral fragment, the “Totenfeier,” essentially an early version of the first movement of the Symphony 2. Mahler also completed Weber’s Die drei Pintos, and the “Entr’acte” music is included, but not the entire work nor any of Mahler’s orchestrations of Schumann and Beethoven, with Universal apparently drawing the line at music Mahler himself composed.

If this comparison of the contents seems a bit fussy, it does matter if you want all of Mahler in a single collection, symphonies and songs. The general problem with Mahler boxes, that there is no one set that is consistently at a top level through all the recordings, is almost solved in these all-star collections. Musically, they are excellent, although it’s possible for individual taste to demur on certain selections. The choices are a combination of the expected and the surprising. EMI has the best surprises; Carlo Maria Giulini’s fantastic recording of Symphony 1, which appears to be currently out of print, Jascha Horenstein’s 4th, Barbirolli’s eccentric and powerful 6th, Klaus Tennstedt’s terrific Symphony 5 rather than Barbirolli’s famous and vastly overpraised recording, and the exquisite Kathleen Ferrier singing the Kindertotenlieder with Bruno Walter in 1949. It’s an embarrassment of riches when the choice is between the Otto Klemperer or Simon Rattle Symphony 2 (Klemperer), or the Rattle or Barbirolli 9th (Barbirolli), but Sir Simon for the win with his Klagende Lied, Symphony 3, 7 and 10 in the Deryck Cooke completion. With the Fischer-Dieskau/Furtwängler “Wayfarer” songs and Klemperer’s monumental Das Lied with Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich, this box may not be truly complete but it is musically great and fascinating.

The Universal set sticks a little closer to the mean, but also has some surprises. Symphonies 1-6 are an accepted bunch of fine recordings; Rafeal Kubelik, Zubin Mehta, Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado (live with the Berlin Philharmonic) respectively. Bernstein’s recording is famous, amazingly willful and is either the greatest or most kitschy expression of Mahler, depending on one’s mood. Herbert von Karajan recorded a terrific 6th, but Abbado’s more recent version is as good as it gets. The positions are reversed on the 9th, where Karajan is given the honors over Abbado. The latter is more consistent through the work, the former gains traction only in the “Rondo-Burlesk” but brings the piece home with overpowering intensity and expression. Here, the 7th is the version from Giuseppe Sinopoli, which pales in comparison to that of Riccardo Chailly, although Chailly’s excellent Cooke 10th is inside, and the 8th is Georg Solti’s famous version, which is not bad but overrated. The vocal selections are very strong, with Giulini’s extraordinarily musical Das Lied, and the exceptional set of song cycles from Hampson and Bernstein. This box is no slouch, and has a bit tighter focus and consistency of style and conception.

They are both modestly priced for both the contents and number of discs within. Ideally, we’d have promises of Mahler boxes in every pot, but for the interested listener who must choose, the EMI box is arguably the single best Mahler set in terms of the quality and interest of the music making, while the Universal box is the only box that has the composer’s complete works, and is completely satisfying musically. And while you’re making up your mind, check out the trailer below. I have no idea if this will be opening at a theater near you, nor if it will be any good (the emphasis on the weepy love triangle between Mahler, Alma and Walter Gropius, with Freud kibbitzing, is the least interesting aspect of the composer for me, but your mileage may vary), but it’s a movie about Mahler, not made by Ken Russell . . .

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Mahler, Considered and Re-

David Zinman‘s chronological Mahler cycle has now reached the crushing, tragic Symphony 6. His recordings of the Wunderhorn symphonies are very good, but his 5th was a setback. Zinman’s approach is on the cool side, which is valid, but despite the superb playing from the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, the neurotic contrasts of styles and emotions in that work were too smoothed out in the recording, which ended up being underwhelming.

This new CD not only is a return to form but a standout issue. Despite it’s sharp-edge emotions – malevolence, fervid longing, near-hysterical fantods and final tragedy – a cool approach can work. Stylistically, Mahler consolidated his language a bit from the freedom of the previous symphony, abstracting the emotions a light bit into a more Classical structure. Pierre Boulez has already produced an intriguing recording of this ‘coolness,’ and Zinman has really surpassed that. The effect is subtle, but the results are profound. He places the beautiful, wrenching Andante Moderato movement second, which initially seems flawed; the understated style of the first movement would seem more ideally contrasted with the insanity of the Scherzo. But Zinman has a long-term dramatic view of this work, and his choices pay off. The Scherzo itself is a stunning contrast to what he has just presented, and his finale is perhaps the finest I’ve heard. The last movement is immense and sprawling, wandering into powerful, introverted reveries that are then crushed by fate. It’s full of extraordinary music but is clearly difficult to control. This conductor shows an absolute mastery not only of the musical traffic but the direction of the long arch and line. It is gripping in itself, and he has balanced the symphony by presenting a narrative of foreboding, hope, harsh opposition and then fate, and the ultimate result is deep tragedy. The orchestral playing is wonderful, the recording stunning, and Zinman’s transparent delineation of the complex polyphony is revelatory. Tremendous in every way.

I’ve also been revisiting an older recording the Symphony 1, a bargain priced reissue with Herbert Kegel conducting the Dresden Philharmonic. Like Zinman’s recording, it is modest in presentation and superb. This is a real model of how the symphony can go. It moves but does not rush, it highlights but doesn’t indulge, it is idiomatic in every way, especially the absolutely Viennese Kraftig bewegt movement, without being indulgent. This is great music-making by a tremendous, musical and self-effacing conductor and one of the world’s finest orchestras. Each time I listen to it, I feel it is the finest recording of this work, and perhaps it is.

Mahler Blogs


Did you know? Gustav Mahler has a blog! Universal Editions is celebrating the odd conjunction of the sesquicentennial of the composer’s birth and the centennial of his death. That seems to promise a plethora of festivals and recordings, which is manna for a Mahlerian like myself, and sure enough the San Francisco Symphony has scheduled a Mahler mini-festival. It coincides with the release of their recording of the Symphony No. 8, which will all but complete their tremendous Mahler cycle. What’s even more exciting is that some of the concertizing will be a part of Michael Tilson Thomas’ “Keeping Score” series, which rivals Bernstein’s appearances on TV as a fascinating and satisfying production of classical music for a general audience.

What cycles will come? Deutsche Gramaphone will certainly box their Boulez cycle, and although I have mixed feelings about the recordings, once they’re put in a box all bets are off. Claudio Abbado has been re-recording many of the Symphonies, and they have been good to excellent; his new 6th and 9th are exceptional. Gergiev’s and Zinman’s cycles continue (I have Zinman’s new 6th to listen to and write about). And we can all tune into the internet and hear Bernard Haitink lead the 9th at the Proms, but only for a few more days. And, in the spirit of the music, and in response to Alex Ross, Opera Chic and Tim Smith, here’s my Mahler list of the moment:

No. 1: Rafael Kubelik leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony, in concert (Audite); better in every way than his celebrated studio recording
No. 2: Stokowksi and the LSO, with Dame Janet Baker, in concert (BBC Legends); this is astonishing and gripping all the way through, and one of the greatest recordings of music ever made. Don’t forget to breath
No. 3: Gary Bertini and the Cologne Radio Symphony (EMI); part of his superb EMI set, a recording that grows in stature with each listen
No. 4: MTT and the San Francisco Symphony (SF Symphony); exquisite and profound, extraordinary recording quality
No. 5: Daniele Gatti, Royal Philharmonic (Conifer); a conception that seems absolutely perfect and thrillingly wild in execution
No. 6: Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in concert (DG); incisive, focussed and aptly grim
No. 7: Simon Rattle and the CBSO in concert (EMI); very exciting, and conceives of the music like no one else
No. 8: Jascha Horenstein and the LSO (BBC Legends); extraordinarily beautiful
Das Lied von der Erde: Carlo Maria Giulini, Berlin Philharmonic, Brigitte Fassbaender & Francisco Araiza (DG); makes the case that this grand score is actually intimate, and the playing is exceptionally musical
No. 9: Bruno Walter, VPO (Dutton); on the eve of the Nazi Anschluss, a requiem, and not a comforting one – intense and profoundly important.

Mahler, The Conclusion

The Mahler cycle came to a close Sunday afternoon with Barenboim conducting the 9th. Since my previous post, I had attended concerts of the 6th and 7th, with Boulez and Barenboim respectively, but unfortunately missed the 8th and Das Lied from being under the weather and a more important commitment – my wife’s play! The best laid plans . . .

Having reached the end, I can see the whole more clearly, and it was embodied in these last three events. Boulez, as always, produces a wonderful sound, and Mahler’s orchestrations in these later works press all his colors farther, particularly the acrid, shining and dark flavors. The conductor presents these beautifully, and shapes the movements carefully. He placed both the cowbells and tubular bells of the final movement offstage, which had a wonderful effect of presenting a far-off and unobtainable solace. Boulez is great at giving you the music, in small and large scales. Where he sometimes disappoints is in presenting the narrative drama, which is essential to Mahler, so the finale of the 6th didn’t grip me with a sense of impending, and inevitable, tragedy, until the coda.

After the incredible 5th, I anticipated more spectacular music-making from Barenboim, and his 7th was mostly ravishing and exhilarating. While I find the 4th increasingly odd, I find the 7th increasingly understandable – it’s almost Mahler’s go at absolute music. The relentless major key tone of the finale can be hard to pull off well because the previous sense of conflict is less than accustomed, but Barenboim drove it hard, too hard I think. He is sincerely excited and thrilled by the music, but like Bernstein’s self-identification with the composer, a bit of control, a small step back can make the most of that feeling. Barenboim is involved. That concert opened with a beautiful performance of the Wayfarer songs by the great Thomas Hampson. He’s not just an excellent singer but an artist as well, offering thoughtful and sincere characterization of the sense and context of the music, without falling into mannerisms. I’ve seen him sing Mahler a lot, and it’s always special.

The 9th was frustrating. Barenboim began with slightly fast but well-measured pace, and pressed the intensity of the turbulent passages. However, rather than finding a way back to repose, he continued to press that intensity, which was a problem for the performance overall. This is an almost unfathomably profound work, and the nothing I know of equals it for depth and breadth of feeling and experience. To do it justice, I believe, it must be approached with a broad view, both emotionally and musically. But Barenboim pressed everything; the landler was brittle, lacking humor; he muddled the tempo of the rondo-burleske and so could not build from intensity to frenzy. The finale was overdone – Mahler does demand some extremes, but opposing ones, these were homogenous.

The orchestra, amazingly, still sounded fairly fresh at the end. They are a little below the top flight groups, especially in terms of the brass and horns, but they have a great sound and play idiomatically with ease. I want to especially note the exceptional concertmaster, Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf, as well as superb playing from Hartmut Schuldt on Bass Clarinet and Tatjana Winkler on the English Horn. While I’m sure they were exhausted, I think the experience was renewing in a way. I find myself loving Mahler even more, and in fact listening to Mahler even more. Hearing the works in concert brought me back to recordings, and my days were filled with the same sounds, and it was always new and exciting and beautiful. For listening, I found myself going through Simon Rattle’s cycle and always returning to the Gary Bertini set, which more and more I think is the single best boxed Mahler cycle in terms of performances and value. I also want to mention the great essays by the two conductors in the program book, Boulez’s especially is stunning, and I’m going to be exploring it’s implications, and very specific Mahler works, in the near future. Thanks for sticking with me.

Mahler 4 & 5

The Mahler cycle continues tonight, with Boulez leading the Sixth. Yesterday was a refreshing break, after concerts of the 4th and 5th symphonies over the weekend. Saturday night it was Boulez leading selections from the Wunderhorn songs and the 4th, with Dorothea Roschmann back singing. The songs were nicely done, but I find excerpts from that work far less compelling than the thing as a whole – there is a lot more charm there than a handful of selections can convey. The 4th symphony has a surfeit of charm, and as the most compact and immediately pretty of the composer’s works, it’s quite popular. I found it increasingly strange, however. Sleighbells! Country fiddle! A song about, literally, a heavenly feast! This is Mahler consolidating his skills and leaving himself to private pleasures, I think. The emotional content is non-narrative and hermetic, the composer’s thoughts to himself. It’s lovely, inventive music, it always sounds unexpected, yet I cannot think of a way that the individual movements fit together in terms of meaning. It is less clear each time, which says a lot about how I listen and think. The performance was relaxed, the slow movement properly rapturous, and Roschmann was excellent in the finale, singing with the appropriate child-like unselfconsciousness.

The Mahler 5th Symphony Sunday afternoon, preceded by Thomas Quasthoff’s excellent performance of the Ruckert Lieder, was one of the great concert-going experiences of my life. I have never heard this work conveyed with such a sense of ultimate possibilities – it was not merely the greatest performance I’ve heard, it was the greatest I can imagine. The orchestra played with utter physical and emotional commitment and concentration, but credit must go to Barenboim. His focus, decisions, control and taste were astonishing. Not only was each tempo perfect, but each modulation and shade of dynamic was perfect for the moment. He conveyed all the luster, dignity, poise, joy, fire, rage and violence by drawing exquisitely fine contrasts between all these states, which meant he never needed to indulge in any one to make a point. His take on the famous Adagietto was extraordinarily thoughtful and imaginative – this has taken on the guise of funeral music in contemporary, which it is not, and is often played at a dirge-like tempo. There is some confusion that Mahler created, by marking both adagietto (a little slow) and Sehr langsam (very slow). Conductors primarily choose the latter. Barenboim began with a marvelous, lithe fade-in from absolute silence, then carried the music along at a true adagietto, relaxed but flowing. It was only at the coda, with a reprise of the opening material, the he slowed the tempo. Simple, brilliant, powerful. He also shaded the relentless major keys of the finale with enough dynamics and color to keep the tension alive, and so the glorious climax was especially rewarding and moving, and all without have to press for more volume or less speed. An enthralling performance, exciting in it’s sheer incredible skill and artistry, that I wished would not end and that I still carry with me. Bravissimo, maestro.