A Crop Of Recordings VI: Symphonic Works by Strauss, Prokofiev, Mahler and Sibelius

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Gustav Mahler.

Gustav Mahler.

STRAUSS Symphonia Domestica. Die Tageszeiten Marek Janowski, conductor; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus PENTATONE PTC 5186 507 (SACD 67:50)

This is a brilliant pairing of repertory. There is nothing more cozy and comfortable in the symphonic canon than the harmless narcissism of Strauss’s “domestic” symphony, originally titled “My home. A symphonic portrait of myself and my family.” Just how tasteful it all is has been a subject of debate ever since 1903, of course. As Peter Ustinov famously said of the composer: “I knew I wouldn’t like his wallpaper.” As it turned out, he didn’t.

So I found myself staring at the Strauss family cover-photo for this release and squinting at the wallpaper to see if I agreed. I’ll suspend judgment on that. But I was more intrigued to learn what Die Tageszeiten would sound like, Strauss’s traversal of the times of day. What would his notion of morning and evening be in 1927, compared to his autumnal thoughts twenty years later in the Four Last Songs? A bit too easy-going, I expected. And so it was.

Die Tageszeiten has only been reviewed once before in Fanfare, a CD by the Turtle Creek Choir and Fort Worth Chamber Orchestra twenty years ago. It was well received. I don’t know the performance. But I’m willing to bet the Berlin Radio Choir here, led by Marek Janowski, manages German pronunciation more authentically. The piece itself is for male choir and orchestra, and this is possibly the reason the music has not received much exposure. But it is extremely beautiful.

You could argue it is too richly scored and the absence of leavening female voices makes for a rather heavy dessert. Like Symphonia Domestica, the music seems almost too serene. But its emotions are gentle and nice, good sentiments for an “occasion.” Here and there are the orchestral Straussian touches that always woo us, and even some of the shivers of the heart, sense of loss and desperately unprotected beauty of the Four Last Songs. But then, a smoldering Germany in 1946 spoke of a very different reality. I’d imagine Strauss wasn’t thinking much about wallpaper by then. The most moving section is perhaps “afternoon,” which hints at the sadness of Metamorphosen. It is unusual to hear Strauss this way with chorus  At times the orchestra shifts ground below your feet like Delius.

Marek Janowski is very much in character here. He always seeks rounded edges in German repertoire — he is a Wagnerian, after all. And he is never given to extremes of anything. He is a fine Straussian, but perhaps not the most exciting one. The “domestic” scene here seems a bit middle-aged. And the baby burbling in his bath water is a very earnest one. But the orchestra plays beautifully in slightly up close sound. I don’t ask more. It is a gorgeous CD. But if you must have a wild ride through this household, try Christopher Seaman and his National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. The double fugue must have taken place in a frat house!

PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 5. Scythian Suite • Andrew Litton, conductor; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra BIS-2124 (SACD 67:00)

This CD has a lot going for it. The Bergen Philharmonic is a virtuosic, richly sprung orchestra of considerable tonal weight and accomplishment. In recent years, with Andrew Litton at the helm, it has become the dominant Norwegian recording ensemble, eclipsing Oslo in international visibility and reputation. As a recording venue, Grieg Hall reveals an open acoustic. Indeed, BIS supplies us here with some of the finest sound I have heard in Prokofiev. The balance between plushness and clarity is all the listener would wish for. One finds oneself immersed in the seductive reaches of Prokofiev’s sound world. I tend to favor this sort of big Prokofiev, where soft kaleidoscopic sonorities ravish and round-off the edges of brass snark. My initial reaction, in fact, was “at last!” Finally, a performance massive enough to do the symphony justice….

The odd thing is, though, after a while I found my attention wandering. The performance turns out to be too cozy around the edges. The musicians don’t sound bored. But they don’t seem to possess a point of view. They sound comfortable. This isn’t the Brahms Third. At the great artillery barrage masquerading as the first movement coda, one experiences a welter of sound, but nothing pushes through or hits hard enough to explode anything and flatten the listener against the wall. Gorgeous, but….

The Scythian Suite seems to cook this recipe more appetizingly. Edgy mock barbarism in early Prokofiev can sound metallic and unpleasant. Not here. Cymbal crashes might as well be waterfalls. And atmospherics in the inner movements are to die for. This is the best performance of the suite I have heard.

The most exciting rendition of the symphony I know is Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, recorded at the Albert Hall Proms for the BBC and published on YouTube. The Rotterdam brasses cut in and out just perfectly, every bit of color registers, and the orchestra’s sheer power is jaw-dropping. For an alternate CD choice, one need look no further than Vladimir Jurowski (Pentatone) or Marin Alsop and the Sao Paulo Symphony (Naxos) or for an experience more exciting than Litton delivers, in equally good sound.

Andrew Litton remains one of the visible conductors on today’s orchestral scene.  And I am certain his career will continue at this level. But he has always been hard to decipher — not because he goes off in eccentric directions — but because he doesn’t seem to have a point of view.

MAHLER Symphony No. 7 • Eliahu Inbal, conductor; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra EXTON EXCL-00077 (SACD 1:20:37)

This CD represents something a bit unusual in Mahler: a lush performance without much angst or hysteria. I’m half tempted to say Eugene Ormandy might have come up with it, if the work had interested him. The orchestra pulses richly and slowly from the outset, the tenor horn golden and romantic. A touch of Czech vibrato is still to be heard in the opening sonority, but not in the glassy way which used to disfigure so many Eastern European recordings. The orchestra’s string sound is a rich nutty chocolate. And the recording, even heard with mere ambience retrieval from the Naxos stream, is a marvel of blend and soft surround. It dates from 2011 and is mostly though not completely live. This is lovely date-night Mahler, as easy to digest as Strauss.

Such an approach is not unexpected from Eliahu Inbal. Inbal’s Frankfurt recording for Denon was reviewed in 1987 by Fanfare’s Peter Rabinowitz and recommended as a less hysterical approach than usual. Inbal is quite consistent over the decades, just a few seconds different from his earlier reading here and there. Tempo is mostly mainstream. His first movement is a bit slower than Tilson Thomas, but faster than Segerstam. What stands out now is the remarkable richness and beauty of the Czech Philharmonic. This orchestra was shrilly recorded for so many decades, we forgot to think of it as one of the world’s greatest, which it so clearly is. So this CD is doubly a joy to listen to.

The Mahler Seventh has taken its time to be “discovered,” and for understandable reasons, apart from length. Mahler is beginning to seek again in this symphony a more blended, almost Brahmsian sonority, which he will use to powerful and rich advantage in the Ninth Symphony. But it can seem turgid at times and unvaried… Mahler seems to be returning to the sound world of Todtenfeier. If you were to sit at a piano and compare that tone poem to the first movement of the Resurrection Symphony, you’d realize what Mahler did was remove most of the middle notes in chords, thereby giving the symphony far greater variety of texture and far greater transparency. It achieves that bare-bones acidity which we consider typically Mahler.

But compared with the earlier symphonies, the Seventh has few crash-bang moments in bare octaves or sudden intrusions of dissonant drama during exposed textures. The chords are all richly filled in. Lushness reigns. The Berlioz-like quirkiness of the sound has begun to disappear. The music seldom stops unexpectedly, seldom bellows at you from strange registers, and seldom seems to be nothing but percussion, as does the First or Fifth.

In her memoir, Alma Mahler speaks of breaking into tears after hearing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for the first time, upset by the militaristic snare-drumming. She then goes on to say Mahler reduced the percussion at her urging. Scholars have exploded that notion as being one of many examples where Alma takes inappropriate credit. But it is reasonable to suppose she chided Mahler for too much of a good thing. And he may have listened down the line. But it would take him until the Tenth Symphony fully to get away from marches.

The notion comes to mind, as this symphony strides along rather seriously and heavily, that here is the birthplace of Hindemith and his earnest slow rat-tat-tat. That’s fine with me. It is a difficult symphony to fall in love with. But I have managed it. And Inbal’s new performance will surely keep me — as JFK knowingly said about meeting Jacqueline — interested!

MAHLER Symphony No. 4 • Marc Albrecht, conductor; Elizabeth Watts (soprano); Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra PENTATONE PTC 5186 487 (SACD 57:53)

This is a remarkable Mahler Fourth. It is seamless, glowing and spectral in ways you wouldn’t normally anticipate. It sounds like a cross between Parsifal and Le Tombeau de Couperin. There is a refined and gentle quality to Marc Albrecht’s conducting — an ability to integrate Mahler’s woodwind sonority into a smoother line than I have encountered before. You might even call it impressionistic. It is among the most beautiful performances I have heard.

Despite the Fourth’s bucolic nature, in practice the sardonic side of Mahler’s wind writing normally dominates the scene. Take a stroll with Mahler down serenity lane, and sooner or later you will be jostled by passers-by and your ears assaulted by out of tune revelers at the corner pub. Mahler, himself, wondered about this tendency and even went to Freud in hope of explaining it. Albrecht’s way with the music is to de-emphasize these brass and woodwind intrusions. You might say he takes the street out of them.

There exists a Vienna Symphony rehearsal video by Karajan in which he asks his players to begin every phrase “as if it were already playing.” This seems to be Albrecht’s approach. He has managed to to remove nearly all the percussive moments in the symphony and maintain the flow. Every phrase seems tied across the bar line. Nothing seems to begin or end. This is a remarkably satiny and beautiful performance, laid out on a delicious carpet of sound. Albrecht manages unearthly quiet and subtlety in the first movement coda and genuine contemplation throughout. The Netherlands Philharmonic strings are limpid and gleaming. Some may argue that the Scherzo, taken a fraction more slowly than usual, lacks bite, but Albrecht finds unexpected beauty in it this way. With three slowish movements in a row, this symphony is always a test for one’s concentration. But this Parsifal approach won me over.

Given the mesmeric mood, I’m all the more pleased to find that Elizabeth Watts approaches her text in the finale in the same smooth manner. All her consonants are de-emphasized. She seems to come out of nowhere and fade into nowhere.  She has a light, flexible voice, and the downward sliding refrain she delivers three times is the prettiest I know. This she achieves without being arch, which is doubly to her credit. Mahler being charming is to be distrusted. But this time the charms are real.

SIBELIUS Lemminkäinen Suite. Pohjola’s DaughterHannu Lintu, conductor; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra ONDINE ODE-12625 (SACD 67:10)

The Lemminkäinen Suite, like Sibelius’s Kullervo, is a remarkable exercise in a developing style. I don’t know if there is a piece of music anywhere so completely dominated by lines in the cello, bass drum rolls and tremolos, like Wagner having a nightmare. Although brass and cymbals are featured at critical moments, they barely seem to peek through the textures, which remain dark throughout. This is the “bardic” manner of early Sibelius, gloomy but personal and storytelling. As his career matured, low reaches in the orchestra would expand to evoke the vast planetary universe and brass lines would soar to an inner metaphysical glow.

Just as well, probably. The legends Sibelius sets to music in this more personal phase of his career are unusually downbeat. Lemminkäinen gets dispatched with an arrow shot by a blind man and dismembered in a river. His mother collects the body parts and reassembles them… Pohjola’s daughter is wooed by a suitor who wounds himself with an axe trying to impress her and gives up… cheerful stuff. Even the Swan of Tuonela circles not some lovely pond, but an isle of the dead. Finnish heros never seem to win. So we ignore the plot to our benefit, I think, and merely enjoy the music.

I have been impressed with Hannu Lintu’s recent Enescu cycle for Ondine with the Tampere PO. Lintu now finds himself at the helm of an even better orchestra, the Finnish Radio SO. This is a lovely CD. Ondine has given Lintu rich dreamy sound, which he exploits to the full. Lemminkäinen has been lucky in the recording studio. There are grand old standbys, like Ormandy, and a zillion Swans, of course — think Karajan. And for a tight version featuring the sharp rhythms of Finnish speech, we have Vänskä and his Lahti orchestra. I am personally fond of Paavo Järvi’s account with the Stockholm PO, partially because of the coupling. Their Nightride and Sunrise is the best I know. But the Swan in Järvi’s CD seems to be swimming in a brightly lit bathtub, so I readily admit that Lintu will be the better choice.

One could not ask for more atmosphere or better sound. And Pohjola’s Daughter is beautifully done. But stay away from Finnish legend. It is hard to enjoy CDs if you have committed suicide out of empathy!

Steven Kruger

About Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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