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CDs of the Week – Gustav Mahler

The centennial glut of Mahler recordings has dwindled to an interesting trickle. I had high hopes of the 7th symphony in Jonathan Nott’s Bamberg cycle (Tudor). Nott, in previous release sought to recast Mahler as a hybrid of Bruckner and Boulez, tradition allied to modernity without the angular individuality of Mahlerian expression. The 7th is the most enigmatic of Mahler symphonies, grasped at first hearing only by one of Mahler’s circle – and that was Arnold Schoenberg, who makes frequent references to it in his works. Nott, as a 20th century specialist, ought to get more our of the 7th than the rest.

And indeed he does. The separation of textures in the opening movement brings clinical analysis to a narrative that is all too often treated with an excess of bucolic sentiment. The interior Night Music movements are nicely done and the symphony seems to be heading for ultimate coherence when, without good cause, conductor and orchestra slip into showtime mode and deliver a finale rich in swagger and void of crucial meaning. The decisions undermines what might have been a prime contender.

Why would Nott do that? It strikes me that his shortcomings in Mahler are similar to Bernard Haitink’s. Both have a tendency to perform Mahler as abstract, emotion-lite music, ignoring the composer’s undercurrents and biographical intentions. Both men may take that comparison as a compliment. They do Mahler their own way. And there are many ways to Mahler.

Francois-Xavier Roth’s debut recording of Mahler 1 with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (Hänssler) may be his first and last, since the orchestra has been singled out contentiously by the radio authorities for abolition. Resistance is gathering and a petition has gathered 10,000 signatures. This is a fine ensemble with a proud history and this Mahler performances has many fine points. It is marred, however, by a misjudged languor at the opening of the first and third movements where the tempi should be at their most taut. The playing is refined and rather Straussian in texture; Mahler’s crucial ironies are missed. Roth, 40, has a knack for original programming. Here, he pairs Mahler with Webern’s early and naïve Im Sommerwind, a shrewd call.

Not expecting much of a 9th symphony from the Badische Staatskapelle of Karlsruhe and its British conductor Justin Brown (PanClassics), I was gripped from first to last by structural certainty and lyrical playing. The orchestra is 400 years old and Brown has been there since 2008, long enough to obtain pinpoint response and one-wheel turns at tricky corners. The first and last movements are transcendent, done with an instinctual grasp of the composer’s unique sound. This is as moving a 9th as any I have heard in the past two centennial years.

A radio retrieval of Fritz Reiner’s Chicago performance of Das Lied von der Erde shares the same tenor, Richard Lewis, as his famous RCA recording but substitutes Christa Ludwig for Maureen Forrester, a luxury upgrade. The problem is the boxy, 1958 concerthall sound (Archipel), no match for RCA’s studio performance, but still worth hearing for the soloists. Lewis was coached for the performance by that astute Mahlerian Berthold Goldschmidt, the refugee composer who helped Deryck Cooke complete the tenth symphony.

Klaus Tennstedt’s 1986 BBC Proms performance of the 3rd symphony is sensational, brash sound notwithstanding (ICA Classics). Its fluidity of motion, Tennstedt’s ability to turn an emotion into its opposite and back again within the same phrase, is a marvel of intuitive interpretation, an inimitable lesson in conducting Mahler. Tennstedt’s concerts were always several degrees more heightened than anything he achieved in studio and this one is breathtaking, devastating, iridescent and unforgettable.

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Norman Lebrecht‘s Why Mahler is available in print and download. He blogs at Slipped Disc.