La Scena Musicale

Friday, July 10, 2009

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No 6

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
LPO-0038 (2 CD – 83 min 53 s)
***** $$$

In 1991, Norman Lebrecht wrote of the phenomenal effect of Klaus Tennstedt in concert: “He found his favourite audience in London, where luridly coifed punks stood motionless in the bear pit of the Royal Albert Hall through his 90-minute performance of Mahler’s Sixth.” About the conductor’s return to the podium after surgery and treatment for cancer, Lebrecht went on, “He returned to give an awesome Mahler Sixth… that left many in tears.” And here is Tennstedt live in this crucial work captured by BBC engineers at the peak of his powers. It is an astonishing account and one that amply demonstrates the virtuosity of the LPO of 1983 and its consummate devotion to the fragile and chronically insecure conductor. This is a disc that no self-respecting Mahlerian should be without. Note also that the LPO label also offers an equally impressive 1985 performance of Mahler’s First (LPO-0012) coupled with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen sung by Thomas Hampson.

- Stephen Habington

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Gustav Mahler: Symphonie No 1

Bamberger Symphoniker/Jonathan Nott
Tudor SACD 7147 (55 min 25 s)
**** $$$$

Dommage que les harmoniques aux cordes et les trompettes en coulisse se perdent tant face aux bois plus costauds dans l’introduction du premier mouvement, car ces derniers font preuve d’un extraordinaire équilibre entre eux, un vrai plaisir à entendre. Le reste du mouvement ne peut se jouer plus lentement, car on frise déjà l’insupportable. (Ici, la nature ne s’éveille pas, mais paresse au lit par un beau dimanche matin.) Cette lenteur donne aux dynamiques dernières mesures un caractère de débarras expéditif – ce ne sera d’ailleurs pas la seule fois. L’excellent second mouvement se passe de critique, avec son rythme piquant et ses sonorités opulentes mais sans lourdeur. Le troisième contient juste assez d’ironie pour passer la rampe, et le quatrième serait recommandable n’eût été, entre autres, l’étrange transition entre phrases vers 1:40. Montage ?. Bravo aux exceptionnels percussionnistes, seuls éléments vraiment « essentiels » de ce disque.

- René Bricault

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mahler Brings Austin Symphony Season to Triumphant Finale!

Classical Travels

The stage at the Long Center in Austin was jammed to capacity this week for performances of Mahler’s Resurrection (Symphony No, 2 in C minor). Peter Bay led the Austin Symphony and the Conspirare Symphonic Choir in a well-prepared and exciting performance. In fact, it was easily the best concert I have seen Maestro Bay conduct in Austin.

The Austin Symphony has not been ignoring Mahler. Under Peter Bay, they played the Mahler First in 1999, the Fourth in 2001 and the Fifth in 2004. The Second, however, is the most challenging of the group.

Mahler’s Second Symphony was composed over 100 years ago (1895), and remains extraordinarily difficult for conductors and orchestras to perform. The notes themselves can be demanding enough, but Mahler has made the challenge even greater by writing in hundreds of subtle tempo markings.

In matters of dynamics, Mahler routinely puts in different markings for each instrument in the same passage. This can be a nightmare for a conductor and requires hours of careful rehearsal to approximate Mahler’s conception. Peter Bay did a remarkable job in balancing the greatly enlarged Austin Symphony. From where I sat - row L on the ground floor - every instrument came through with remarkable clarity.

More to the point, Bay had gone beyond the letter of the score to conduct with passion and poetry. One small quibble; as a matter of personal preference, I wish he had treated Mahler’s glissando markings less apologetically.

The musicians too, had clearly done their homework. The basses and cellos get a workout right from the opening bars – a kind of continuation of the recitative passage from the beginning of the last movement of the Beethoven Ninth. The players rose to the task with both enthusiasm and careful attention to detail. The brass playing, both onstage and off, was just as fine and even in the loudest passages, always musical.

Scott Cantrell, in a Dallas Morning News review of this concert, mentions that the organ was “inaudible at the end.” This was not my experience. The organ makes its entrance very near the end of the last movement and its role is simply to reinforce the orchestra and chorus. It sounded fine where I sat. Mr. Cantrell’s seat was in the balcony; therein may lie the reason for our differing opinions.

In matters of acoustics, it is difficult to pinpoint what is right or wrong with a concert hall. In most halls, circumstances affecting how one hears the music differ from one concert to another; one may be sitting in a different location; the repertoire is different; the size of the orchestra may be different.

My experience at the Friday night performance of the Mahler was definitely favorable. The fact remains, however, that the Dell Hall in the Long Center is simply not in the same class with the Myerson or several other great halls one could mention. In spite of the best efforts of the ASO musicians and their conductor, as Mr. Cantrell put it “the hall lends little warmth, or richness or blend.”

This general observation notwithstanding, on this occasion, we should be celebrating the quality of this particular performance.

The Conspirare Symphonic Choir – about 100 members strong – was at a distinct disadvantage in being positioned at the very back of the shell, but sang with strength and joy. Mahler struggled with faith in God all his life, but in this symphony he wholeheartedly affirmed his belief in life after death and expressed that belief in some of the most inspiring music ever written. The members of the chorus captured this spirit.

I was less captivated by the soloists. Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts' beautiful voice seemed a little lightweight for what she had to tell us in the Urlicht movement and soprano Linda Mabbs lacked the ethereal purity her part requires.

Overall, this was Peter Bay’s night and his triumph. After ten seasons in Austin, Bay has consistently demonstrated an ability to efficiently prepare a ‘per service’ orchestra in interesting and difficult programs. He knows how to rehearse and how to get the best out of his musicians in limited rehearsal time. Even for a work as complicated as the Mahler Second Symphony, he had only the usual five rehearsals.

On the basis of this week’s Mahler performance, it is clear that in music that challenges him, Maestro Bay can also be forceful and involved.

More good news; Bay has programmed Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 for next season.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Monday, December 22, 2008

All's quiet at the NY Philharmonic

Since last week's sordid events, there have been three developments:
  • The Philharmonic's chief executive is apparently unwell.
  • The critic who praised Gilbert Kaplan's performance of Mahler's second symphony has admitted he did not acknowledge the conductor's full authority in his review.
  • And two more players have reiterated the trombonist's attack on the guest conductor in language so similar to one another as to suggest a football huddle.
On the first matter, there is nothing to add except to wish Zarin Mehta a speedy recovery.

Steve Smith, the critic (who is also music editor for Time Out New York), deserves much credit for disclosing on his blog that he regrets having omitted a phrase in which he described Kaplan as co-editor of the critical edition of the score - in other words, as the man who helped produce the text that is truest to the composer's final intentions.

The two new grumblers deserve no credit at all, not even name credit.

They were playing for the first time an authentic version of the symphony and all they could do was whinge about aspects of the conductor's technique. Have these people lost all interest in music? Don't they want to know more about the stuff they play? Can't they see beyond a physical rehearsal-room limitation to the possibility of actual enlightenment?

The New York Philharmonic has come out of this seedy episode looking like a rabble without a cause. When its music director invites a man to conduct a concert for the benefit of the orchestra's pension fund, it is worse than just bad manners for the players to insult him to their heart's content. It is a symptom of exceedingly bad management, of an organisation that has run out of control. Somebody needs to get a grip, to state a position, to invoke a principle of collective responsibility.

It is no surprise that Riccardo Muti turned down the offer to become music director in favour of Chicago, that Simon Rattle won't go near the band with a bargepole and that the only person with enough insurance to succeed Lorin Maazel is the son of two members of the orchestra who think they can keep the hyenas from his door. What a shambles.

Source: Artsjournal

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mahler: Symphony no. 6

Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink
CSO-Resound SACD 901807 (2 CD : 90 min 41 s)
**** $$$$

Heureusement, ou peut-être malheureusement, Bernard Haitink se retient de tomber ici dans les élucubrations psychologiques ou les épanchements passionnels. S'il existe une musique où ce risque est partout présent, c'est bien l'univers symphonique de Mahler, en particulier sa « tragique » Sixième. Haitink offre au contraire à l'auditeur une lecture d'une parfaite intelligence musicale. Bien malin celui qui dénicherait une version de cette symphonie où les décisions spécifiques du chef s’intègrent aussi naturellement à la structure globale de l’œuvre. Et si peu de mahlériens mettront ce disque au premier rang de leur palmarès personnel, tous auront intérêt, ne serait-ce que pour approfondir leur discernement musical, à en faire une écoute très attentive. L’étiquette « personnelle » de l’orchestre de Chicago rivalise ici d’ingéniosité en matière de captation sonore.

- René Bricault

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Mahler: Symphony No. 7

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic / Gerard Schwarz
Artek AR00432 (76 min)
** $$$$

Pauvre Philharmonique de Liverpool. Les musiciens se démènent comme ils peuvent pour réaliser une interprétation… qui ne veut rien dire. En effet, Schwarz cherche systématiquement un tempo précis et différent pour chaque nouveau motif au début de l'œuvre, ce qui détruit la continuité narrative tout en empêchant les musiciens de s'exprimer avec passion – pour ensuite abandonner l'idée et garder un rythme aussi constant que monotone (on songe en particulier ici à la fin du 3e mouvement). En voulant à tout prix imprimer sa personnalité à la Septième, le chef obtient exactement le contraire. De plus, la qualité de l'enregistrement, malgré sa louable précision, manque de fondu, de brillance, bref d'un mastering digne de ce nom.

- René Bricault

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Nagano & OSM Rise to the Challenge: Mahler's Epic Symphony of One Thousand!

The final ‘Chorus mysticus’ is one of the most powerful passages in his entire oeuvre, if not in the whole history of musicHenry-Louis de La Grange

It is easy to be overwhelmed by Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Few works require such vast resources - hundreds of singers and instrumentalists. Fewer still rise to such towering climaxes, and yet the Mahler Eighth is not about size, but about love and death and the meaning of it all. Mahler wrestled with these concepts his whole life and tried his best to express what he felt through his music. Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal opened the OSM’s 75th season with two performances of the Eighth Symphony and the one I heard - the second - on Wednesday night, was extraordinary.

An Opera Disguised as a Symphony, or a New Kind of Symphony?
It is often remarked on that Mahler was one of the great opera conductors of his time yet wrote no operas. Each of his symphonies, however, is a music drama and many of them use one or more voices. The Eighth Symphony begins with a hymn, but its entire second part is a setting of much of Goethe’s Faust: Part Two, an operatic scene if ever there was one. At the same time, Mahler was not writing an opera disguised as a symphony; he was writing a new kind of symphony. In fact, he composed the entire first movement before he had a text and then fit his selected text to the music.

One can analyze the Eighth Symphony in purely musical terms. The first movement, for example, is in sonata form and the second movement is a kind of Lisztian symphonic poem in which themes from the first movement reappear. In both movements Mahler employs the most complex contrapuntal devices. It all hangs together as a musical structure on a very large scale, but Mahler was also trying to go beyond traditional musical forms by adding voices to the orchestra just as Beethoven had done in his Ninth or Choral symphony. The Beethoven Ninth is also coherent as a purely musical structure. Remember how Beethoven brings back themes from earlier movements to start the last movement. Mahler does the same thing in his Eighth Symphony, only on a larger scale and with a more elaborate extra-musical purpose.

Part One: The Agony of Struggle and the Ecstasy of Hope A Wild Ride to Faith
The first movement of the Eighth Symphony makes use of a Ninth Century Latin hymn attributed to Hrabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz. It is a fervent glorification of God and the equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the hope that all men will be brothers. In the words of Maurus’ hymn:

Give us joy,
Grant us Thy grace,
Smooth our quarrels,
Preserve us in bonds of peace.

Like Beethoven, Mahler uses his soloists and chorus in this movement simply as different kinds of instruments, and so extends the expressive range and colour of the symphony orchestra. Mahler also gives us a hymn setting that goes far beyond Bach and Beethoven in its extreme emotionalism. There are moments when the music gets so wild it seems on the verge of spinning out of control.

Part Two: Repentance, Divine Love, Forgiveness and Life Everlasting
The second movement of the symphony is something else again. Here, through the medium of lines from Goethe’s Faust, Mahler continues his lifelong exploration of the mysteries of love, faith and death. In his Symphony No. 2 Resurrection, Mahler had given us a powerful vision of life after death, and in his Fourth Symphony he had shown us what heaven could be like through the eyes of a child. In the Eighth Symphony we have Goethe’s depiction of life after death as Faust’s soul is welcomed into heaven and Faust is reunited with his beloved Gretchen. In Goethe’s telling of the Faust legend, the scholar Faust makes a pact with the devil that in return for getting everything he wants in earthly life, he will serve the devil in hell. One thing leads to another - Faust falls in love with Gretchen and gets her pregnant. She gives birth but then drowns her illegitimate child. Convicted of murder, she is sent to prison. Faust is doomed to hell and damnation, but at the end of Part One, voices from heaven proclaim that Gretchen will be forgiven and saved.

By the end of Part Two, Faust is forgiven his overweening ambitions and desires and accepted in heaven where Gretchen awaits him. Like Schumann and Liszt before him, Mahler found in Goethe’s text the most profound expression of the human condition and the path to everlasting life through earthly love and Christian faith.

Thriving on Challenges, Nagano Delivers Full Scope of Mahler’s Masterpiece
Given its enormous musical and philosophical challenges, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is a daunting challenge for any conductor. Kent Nagano showed Montreal listeners once again that he thrives on challenges. He conducted with remarkable technical control and a deep sense of what lay behind the notes. The overwhelming climaxes at the end of each of the two movements were built with care and realized with maximum intensity. Yet it was often in the quiet passages that one felt Nagano’s total identification with the music. Mahler loved to storm the heavens, but some of his most profound music is whispered rather than shouted.

Nagano’s soloists were all first-rate and added immeasurably to the success of the performance. Soprano Jennifer Wilson got off to a shaky start but settled in later on to soar fearlessly over the huge orchestra. Soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme impressed me with the beautiful colour of her voice. The star soloist, however, was undoubtedly tenor Simon O’Neill (left:photo by Lisa Kohler). He has been singing some of the great Heldentenor roles in opera houses around the world and one can see why he is in such demand. In the Mahler Eighth he was heroic indeed but never lost his fine lyric sound.

The OSM Chorus sang magnificently under its guest chorus master, Michael Zaugg. The OSM winds have shown themselves capable of producing finer intonation on other nights, but then Mahler’s writing is often cruelly exposed. On the whole, however, the orchestra played with total commitment and careful attention to balances.

The eminent Mahler authority Henri-Louis de La Grange gave us something to ponder in calling the final 'Chorus Mysticus' one of “the most powerful passages in the history of music.” As Kent Nagano led his stellar ensemble of soloists, chorus and orchestra through this inspiring music at Place des Arts, one had no choice but to concur wholeheartedly.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

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Monday, July 7, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: July 7 (Mahler, Menotti)

1860 - Gustav Mahler, Kaliště, Bohemia (Czech Republic); composer, conductor

Wik entry
Gustav Mahler Society
Biography and more

Thomas Hampson sings "Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz", No. 4 from Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) (Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein)

Symphony No. 5, 1st mvt. "Trauermarsch" (Cologne Philharmonic, conducted by James Conlon)

1911 - Gian Carlo Menotti, Cadegliano, Italy; composer, librettist

Wiki entry

Gian Carlo Menotti - A Composer's Life in Two Worlds

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