David Zinman, the music director formerly of the Baltimore Symphony and now of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, is nearing the mid-point of a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies. The first two installments showed exceptional promise, a weighty Resurrection (with a warm and mystical final two movements) and a folkish and suave first symphony (including Blumine, the original second movement later excised by Mahler). The next two volumes in the cycle, which Zinman is taking in order, were released early this year (actually recorded in 2006), which sets a remarkable pace.
Mahler, Symphony No. 3, Birgit Remmert, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, David Zinman
(released October 30, 2007)
RCA Red Seal 88697 12918 2
Zinman has put together an expansive, broad-paletted Third Symphony, a long work that Mahler once described as "an enormous laugh at the whole world," also worrying that "its gaiety is not going to be understood or appreciated." It was born of Mahler's meditation on the burgeoning life of summer during his annual composing vacations, earning it the provisional title, later dropped, The Joyous Science: A Summer's Morning Dream (that first phrase came from Nietzsche). Zinman's version has alternately wild and suave communications from the flowers and beasts. Birgit Remmert gives a pleasingly simple but warmly mysterious performance of the fourth movement (but not so much when she is with the chorus in the last movement), and the choral contributions (from the Schweizer Kammerchor and the Zürcher Sängerknaben) are distinguished by a combination of rusticity and angelic clarity.
So different from the lightness of the middle movements is the sixth movement, what Mahler heard from love (as he put it in one of his letters, not earthly love but eternal love). It is in some ways an extension of the apotheosis of the second symphony. The Tonhalle strings are rich and compressed to a hush, followed by the outburst of the brass in the conclusion. Zinman's first movement clocks in at 35 minutes, about ten minutes short of the length Mahler estimated. Mahler completed it last, only after a friend mailed him the sketches he had forgotten in his desk drawer. Zinman gives the triumphal arrival of summer and Pan (it was originally titled Der Sommer marschiert ein) a heroic edge, with plenty of wild dancing and other antics. Listening to it last is an interesting experience, following the order of composition. (Jens has also recently recommended recordings by Pierre Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado live with the Berlin Philharmonic.)
The Fourth Symphony is related to the third, not least because Mahler shaved off the final movement of the third symphony and later made it the final movement of the fourth. That movement is a setting of one of the poems from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection, which he never included in his song collection. When he was thinking of having it conclude the third symphony, the movement was called Was mir das Kind erzählt (What the Child Tells Me), a setting of the poem Die himmlische Leben.
Mahler, Symphony No. 4, Luba Orgonášová, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, David Zinman
(released March 11, 2008)
RCA Red Seal 88697 16852 2
That poem describes a child-like vision of paradise, with the saints like a jolly village. Mahler once described the fourth symphony as a series of children's dreams, culminating in that happy paradise, where the fish swim up to be eaten on fast days. Cleverly, Mahler weaves in a Bavarian folk song, Der Himmel hängt voller Geigen (The sky is full of violins). For that combination of folk simplicity and piety, a child's ferverino, you need a voice that is puissant, that can soar over the orchestra, but that can also be clear and convincingly child-like. Renée Fleming did not cut it, even with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. The Slovakian soprano Luba Orgonášová has the right kind of voice, also heard as Pamina, Donna Anna, Eurydice, and even with early music conductors like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Christopher Hogwood.
Apparently determined to provide a counterbalance to the expansiveness of his previous symphonies, especially the third, Mahler kept the orchestration and the length -- if not the formal complexity -- to a minimum in the fourth. Taking that clarity as a cue, Zinman delivers a transparent quality to much of the work, at the same time not fearing to savor the glories of the slow movement especially. It will be up to Jens, who has listened to far more Mahler recordings than I have, to advise us where Zinman fits in to the overall (burgeoning) Mahler discography. For my tastes in Mahler and at competitive prices, Zinman's Mahler cycle is off to an excellent start.