Mahler symphonies 900719

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphonies 1-9
Chor & Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live composite, 2007-2016, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Herkulessaal der Residenz (1 & 5), Munich
2 bonus CDs: rehearsals & interviews
Detailed contents beneath review
No texts provided
BR KLASSIK 900719 [12 CDs: 846]

The big, bargain box-set repackaging trend continues; here, BR Klassik, as another tribute to the late Mariss Jansons, have collected his live concert performances of all Mahler’s symphonies in Munich with the BRSO over nearly a decade – except for the Tenth which, as far as I know, he did not conduct – along with two bonus CDs of rehearsals and interviews. The set is currently selling for £55/$70 and up, and any Jansons devotee who has already bought the BR Klassik compilation set (review) issued four years ago will not be best pleased, as that contained four of the symphonies reproduced here, nos. 2, 5, 7 and 9. Furthermore, those four had previously been issued separately and extensively reviewed on MusicWeb (Symphony No. 2 review review; Symphony No. 5 review ; Symphony No. 7 review; Symphony No. 9 review) – mostly positively, although Dan Morgan parted company from his two fellow reviewers in heartily disliking the Resurrection, a verdict with which I agree. Finally, I myself very favourably reviewed the First Symphony (review). In short, the appeal of this new set is surely be limited by the fact that many prospective purchasers will already have acquired as many as five of the symphonies here.

There is little point my going over old ground already so extensively covered by my colleagues in those reviews unless I disagree – which, by and large, I do not. I stand by my own enthusiastic evaluation of the First, but agree with DM that the Resurrection is routine and often devoid of the necessary tension or excitement; he nails it when he observes that “It’s all so tidy, with nothing out of place”. I, too, remain unmoved by this performance – except for Bernarda Fink’s really beautiful singing of “Urlicht”, which is as lovely as any I know and in the Janet Baker class. On the other hand, one man’s excessive restraint is another’s subtlety and I can only suggest you sample this first; I personally will continue to turn to more overtly demonstrative and dynamic versions. The Fifth I find more animated, but again there are moments of slackness; for example, the opening of the second movement is flaccid and the Scherzo strikes me as too tame for such wild, demonic music. The Adagietto, however, is exquisitely played, without wallowing, hence the relatively swift duration of under nine minutes – and Jansons knows how to underline the tenderest moments, such as in the downward portamento slide six minutes in. I refer you to Gavin Dixon’s excellent review of the Seventh above, as it accurately reflects my own response to this careful, detailed account – but, as before, I miss something of the greater excitement generated by such as Solti in this, the most original, innovative and puzzling of Mahler’s symphonies. Regarding the Ninth, I find this to be the best performance here along with the First and the Third; it is grand, melancholy and mysterious and characterised by a sense of everything moving inexorably towards the transcendent Adagio finale, which is sublimely played, breasting wave after wave of searing intensity. Even there, however, I think a little more could be made of the burlesque and the grotesque elements in the Ländler passages of the middle two movements.

The Third begins very promisingly with a monitory fanfare and a sinister funeral march which glares and snarls. The percussion is more prominent here than in some of the recordings of the other symphonies, which matters in such menacing music – and the BRSO horns and trumpets are superb. There is a vigour and drive here which brings this performance alive. The martial conclusion of the first movement is thrilling and evinces a propulsion not always evident in Jansons’ direction. The lyricism of the second movement minuet suits Jansons’ temperament perfectly; the long movement unfolds effortlessly and segues seamlessly into the charming Scherzo – and Jansons captures neatly the moments when it threatens to “turn nasty”, injecting plenty of bite into the more ironic passages. There is a real exuberance to this movement and the cosmic nature of the coda is fully embraced. The recording also surely enjoys the best sound of any in the set, with none of the slight remoteness I hear elsewhere in the set – except for the trumpet serenade, which is deliberately distanced, to magical effect. Nathalie Stutzmann’s strange, disembodied – at first, very “straight” – timbre in “Oh, Mensch! Gib Acht!” is highly effective in suggesting otherworldliness and her tone is matched by the spareness of the answering oboe; I like it. There is a nice distinction in the aural perspective between the boys’ and women’s choirs in the fifth “Bimm-bamm!” movement which is wonderfully animated – but I am a little perturbed by what I hear as too brisk a tempo for the famous, soulful tune which opens the finale; for me, it lacks weight and depth taken so fast. Nonetheless, as ever, it is so beautifully played by the BRSO that I am almost prepared to concede its viability taken at this pace, except I could also wish that Jansons was not grunting and crooning along so audibly from around 5:40 onwards. The climax fifteen minutes into the movement delivers the impact which is sometimes missing at similar points in some other symphonies here and the concluding three minutes are glorious; this joins the First, Fourth and Ninth as a favourite performance.

The Fourth is at first genial and gemütlich but progressively nervy and hard-driven; that will please those who ascribe to the opinion increasingly encountered these days that this symphony is much darker than it is commonly perceived. I am again struck by the virtuosity of every section of the BRSO and the slow movement is mesmerising over its entire length. Miah Persson sings sweetly and purely in the fourth movement with just the right hint of “Keckheit” – or perhaps faux-naïveté. For me, Jansons judges pretty much every right here and this is one recording where after a decent pause the deserved applause is retained.

Contrary to his usual practice, Jansons placed the Scherzo of the Sixth second and the Andante third, as per Mahler’s own performance practice before he changed his mind – which to me increasingly seems the preferable option. The playing is crisp enough but I would not say that it is the last word in venom and release, as Jansons doesn’t really seize this predominately martial, march music by the throat; he also opts for the subtler but less dramatic two, rather than three, hammer blows (the thumps themselves, however, are great!). Of course, the cow-bells passage in the first movement and the pastoral Andante are lovely – only the cowbells there sound clattery rather than alluring – but they are mere interludes, subsumed into the maelstrom of despair with which the symphony concludes, and Jansons’ approach in the finale is just a tad too polite.

The Eighth is blessed with superb sound and a fine choir right from the start but the listener might be conscious that we are falling somewhat short of the choral numbers which are ideal – and then the real disappointment kicks in with the soloists who are a team of the twitterers, screechers, wobblers, bleaters and growlers of the kind all too commonly encountered these days. Tenor Johann Botha in particular sound more strained and constricted than I have heard him elsewhere; Solti’s and Sinopoli’s teams are far superior. I know that this is a killingly demanding work, vocally speaking, and that I stand convicted of being primarily “a voice man” but for all the virtuosity and effulgence of the BRSO and choir and Jansons’ energised direction, I cannot see how this work can succeed without first-class solo voices – yet for all that, the conclusion to the first movement is absolutely thrilling; kudos to the choir.

The SACD sound is excellent throughout and absolutely no audience noise is discernible – an advantage presumably assisted by the fact that these are composite live recordings; i.e. assembled by selecting takes from two performances and possibly even rehearsals. There are moments dotted throughout these recordings, however, when I sense a certain remoteness or detachment from proceedings in the aural landscape, especially when a choir or the back row of the orchestra is concerned (but which is not the case in the Eighth).

It seems a pity that space could not be found in the booklet for the texts of the words sung in the Third, Fourth and Eighth symphonies. The label in its blurb makes quite a thing of providing the rehearsal sequences and the interviews but I ask in all honesty whether punters really care much about such bonuses or listen to them more than once – especially as they are in German, which excludes a large section of the market. I am not a fluent German speaker but can usually get the gist; I suspect, however, that for purchasers outside the German-speaking market these discs will at best be heard once and otherwise remain in the box unplayed. I am open to correction on this, you understand…

Overall, the high standard of playing and Jansons’ attachment to clarity and detail are this sets greatest assets but those advantages must be balanced against an intermittent lack of passion and propulsion, and a consequent lack of consistency of quality throughout the nine symphonies. The First, Third, Fourth and the Ninth are the most successful recordings here; of the other five, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh are often admirable in many ways but also exhibit certain deficiencies as far as my own taste goes, and are only middlingly satisfying performances, while the Second and Eighth are decidedly sub-standard.

Ralph Moore

CD 1:
Symphony No. 1 in D major ‘Titan’
rec. 1-2 March 2007
CD 2:
Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’
Anja Harteros (soprano)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
rec. 13-15 May, 2011
CDs 3 & 4:
Symphony No. 3
Nathalie Stutzmann (alto)
Tölzer Knabenchor, Frauenchor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
rec. 8-10 December 2010
CD 5:
Symphony No. 4
Miah Persson (soprano)
rec. 15-17 December 2010
CD 6:
Symphony No. 5
rec. 10-11 March 2016
CD 7:
Symphony No. 6 in A minor ‘Tragic’
4-6 May 2011
CD 8:
Symphony No. 7
rec. 8-9 March 2007
CD 9:
Symphony No. 8 in E Major “Symphony of a Thousand”
Twyla Robinson (soprano), Christine Brewer (soprano), Anna Prohaska (soprano), Janina Baechle (alto), Mihoko Fujimura (alto), Johan Botha (tenor), Michael Volle (baritone), Ain Anger (bass)
State Choir Latvija, Tölzer Knabenchor, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
rec. 12-14 October 2011
CD 10:
Symphony No. 9
2 bonus CDs with rehearsal recordings, concert guide and interviews:
20-21 October 2016
CD 11:
Symphony No. 3 in D Minor (Rehearsal Excerpts)
Friedrich Schloffer (narrator)
Jerzy May (narrator)
Hansjörg Profanter (trombone)
Martin Angerer (trumpet)
Antje Dörfner (narrator), Mariss Jansons (narrator)
CD 12:
Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor (Rehearsal Excerpts)
Friedrich Schloffer (narrator)
Conclusion of Conversation about Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E Minor “Song of the Night” (Excerpts)
Hannah Weiss (narrator)
Concert Guide to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E Minor “Song of the Night” (Excerpts)
Bernhard Neuhoff (narrator), Carsten Fabian (narrator)

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