CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


At Washington Classical Review: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Charles T. Downey, Alsop, BSO have uneven night with Orff and Stravinsky
Washington Classical Review, September 30

Latest on Forbes: 106 Years Mahler Eighth, The Best Recordings

I've written a good amount about Mahler here on ionarts, and at this point every chapter of the Mahler Survey (originally on WETA), except for those on the Fourth Symphony, have been restored. For the occasion of the 106th anniversary of the premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, on September 12th, I wrote a summary of my favorite recordings of that symphony, based on my survey so far, but also some recent listenings. There is a new contender among my favorites, while an old favorite (Lennie, actualy) dropped out... the link to the whole review is here:

106 Years Mahler Eighth: The Best Recordings


Latest on Forbes: Itzhak Perlman on Warner, Tim Page on Itzhak

At the root of the lengthy missive over on Forbes is a review of Warner’s box set of Itzahk Perlman’s recordings for the EMI/Warner and Erato/Telarc labels, released to honor this great violinist of our times on his 70th birthday (in 2015). After waffling on the merit of many of these recordings and soliciting the help of the very dear Tim Page (who had not even properly convalesced then, and still gave generously of his time which took a considerable, easily underestimated amount of effort), the aim of the essay became increasingly a matter of defining the curious ambivalence with which I find myself facing Izthak Perlman’s art: An ambivalence which I might not have bothered writing about, if I had not know that I wasn’t alone in it. The full article here:

Itzhak Perlman: Mediocre Genius


In the Post: BSO, Thibaudet play Gershwin

available at Amazon
Gershwin, Concerto in F / Rhapsody in Blue, J.-Y. Thibaudet, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, M. Alsop
(Decca, 2010)
Charles T. Downey, With new members in BSO, striving for a cohesive sound in season opener at Strathmore (Washington Post, September 26)
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s season at its second home, the Music Center at Strathmore, opened Saturday evening. Before the second half, music director Marin Alsop introduced the 10 new musicians who have joined her ensemble’s roster since the second half of last season. This includes new principal clarinetist Yao Guang Zhai, who comes to Charm City from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

For the traditional playing of the national anthem, Alsop turned not to the newly commissioned arrangements of recent years, but one made by Igor Stravinsky as a gift to the country that adopted him during the Second World War. A few harmonic oddities, restrained for Stravinsky, enlivened the familiar tune. It complemented the bonbon that followed it, “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Julia Bullock’s clear soprano had a subtle intensity, beauty behind a veil. The eight cellists on the accompaniment, though, did not always agree in intonation.

With the adjustment in membership, it may take some time for the BSO to regain its most cohesive sound. The orchestral passages of Gershwin’s Concerto in F were a little uncoordinated rhythmically. The beat must be absolutely clean so that the jazz-infused rhythm can swing against it. It was not quite. The high point was the solo playing of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, smoky insouciance that felt like improvisation, as well as the bluesy trumpet solos in the slow movement. Thibaudet’s tendency to rush to the downbeat in challenging passages further unsettled the piece.

Alsop has decided to focus much of the season on the music of Beethoven. Again. Her urgent, overly fast tempo made the first movement of the composer’s Fifth Symphony a nervous blur, but the second movement felt bracing in its lack of sentimentality. In the third movement, she emphasized strong contrasts of loud and soft, a good setup for the surprise eruption of the finale. Incisive piccolo solos helped give the conclusion a martial edge.
Julia Bullock shows almost any song can soar in her capable vocal cords (Washington Post, April 20, 2016)

Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…The low strings hum like bumble-bee war-drones on a fuzzy mission of humanity. The timpani are bone-dry and caught in uncanny detail. It’s a joy how Decca recorded this extraordinarily well-sounding orchestra…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Classical CD Of The Week: Nelson Freire's Bumble-Bee-Beethoven


A Traditional 'Marriage of Figaro'

Joshua Hopkins and Lisette Oropesa in The Marriage of Figaro, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

On Saturday night, September 24, 2016, the Washington National Opera’s performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was simulcast to Nationals Park for the annual Opera in the Outfield. In addition to a full opera house at the Kennedy Center, there were some 8,000 people in the ballpark pitching for Mozart. The evening began with the playing of the National Anthem.

Then came something unique in my many years of opera experience. After an overture played with punchy rhythms, conductor James Gaffigan led the WNO Orchestra in the opening orchestral measures to the duettino between Figaro and Susanna. Then the music stopped, and Gaffigan turned to the audience and exclaimed, “There’s supposed to be singing here.” But there wasn’t, because there was no Figaro or Susanna in sight. In fact, there was nothing in sight because the lights were down and the curtain had not been drawn. The culprit turned out to be a glitch with the automated curtain apparatus. The problem was soon resolved and Gaffigan and his forces began again – this time with Figaro and Susanna present on a stunningly handsome set of a neoclassical palace room.

The affair was handled with good humor, and thus began an evening filled with hilarity. The Marriage of Figaro was the musical Marx Brothers of its time. Da Ponte’s libretto, taken from Beaumarchais’s play of the same name, is a precursor to a French bedroom farce. The love spats, the impersonations, the cross-dressing, the endless conniving to entrap unfaithful lovers, the near-escapes, and the bald-faced lies combine to great comic effect. Part of the fun – the main part – is taking the terrible silliness of it all seriously, which is exactly what Mozart’s music does, though it is hardly lacking in effervescence. And it is what this excellent production does, as well. As Buster Keaton once said, comedy is a serious business. Only the audience should know that it’s funny. That was the case here, with hardly any moments of self-consciousness within the production to spoil the fun.

It is clear that director Peter Kazaras trusts that Mozart and Da Ponte knew what they were doing and so he played it straight, which is why it worked so well. (Why fight 230 years of success?) The sets and costumes are contemporaneous with the time in which the opera is set. Perhaps this is thought to be unoriginal today, but I was relieved to see a traditional production – particularly when done as attractively as this – because I am tired of seeing operas set anachronistically by directors for whom this substitutes as imagination. I’m not suggesting that there is only one way to do an opera, but do we really learn anything worthwhile from seeing Don Giovanni set in fascist Spain (as I recently experienced)? Or is Richard Wagner more correctly understood as an environmentalist who would wish us to recycle, as was suggested in the WNO’s superbly sung but sadly misconceived toxic-dump setting of the Ring Cycle this spring? Please, spare us! So often, productions such as these are calling attention away from the operas and toward the producers and directors – “Look at me!”

In any case, there was no solipsism in sight during this delightful evening of Figaro. All the principals sang and acted well. At first, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny seemed to lack the ultimate energy and ease with which to put over the role of Figaro, but he was simply warming up. He quickly grew in these departments until he clearly took command of the role and much of the opera. Soprano Lisette Oropesa’s Susanna sparked right from the beginning. Her singing was as fine as her lively characterization of the maid.

Baritone Joshua Hopkins as Count Almaviva and soprano Amanda Majeski as Countess Almaviva were paired well in the troubled marital relationship that drives the whole opera. With a good sense of stage presence, he was lecherous without being ridiculous, which made his repentance real. He was vocally strong. Majeski, in terms the Nationals Park audience would understand, hit her arias, particularly Dove sono, out of the ballpark. (I shall forgo saying it was pitch-perfect.) She was an affecting Countess. Mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano’s portrayal of the erotically eager pageboy Cherubino was fun and deft, though there seemed at times a slight wobble in her voice.

Keith Jameson’s tenor voice, deployed in the character role of Basilio, was one of the few able to slice through the orchestra when conductor Gaffigan swamped his singers, as he tended too often to do, particularly in the first act. Jameson’s acting captured the delicious superciliousness of Basilio. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Marcellina and bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas, who also sang Dr. Bartolo in the May 2010 WNO Marriage, made for another wonderful pairing. They were spot on as character actors with perfect voices for their roles. Lanchas, however, struggled in a few spots when the pace of the parlando singing quickened to warp speed.

I have already praised set designer Benoit Dugardyn’s stunning neo-classical conception, forested with handsome Doric columns. Costume designer Myung Hee Cho’s costumes splashed the stage with strong colors against the off-white stone columns. The effect was striking and helped project the characters forward.

If the four acts of The Marriage of Figaro have demonstrated anything it is the universal human fallibility of its characters. Mozart, however, does not simply laugh at them. Rather, he expresses a touching compassion that ends things with an act of forgiveness that provides the basis for the restoration of the broken relationships he portrays. Marriage not only presents the problem; it presents the solution.

In short, this is a good production of a great opera. There is no reason not to go see The Marriage of Figaro when it repeats on September 26, 28, 30, and October 2.


Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…The latter is very late-period Smetana, where mental trouble, probably due to syphilis, was already rearing its ugly head. It was written just a year before Smetana—long deaf by then—died in Prague’s Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum. The torn quality can remind, if faintly, of late Schumann—but the language firmly retains its Central European accent. The Talich Quartet’s warm, direct sound and rich acoustic add much to the immediacy of the music. The feeding frenzy of the third movement Allegro opening in that Second Quartet, for example, is an amazing witness to this,…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Classical CD Of The Week: Czech Please

CD Review: Office of San Minias

Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Early music on the cutting edge
Washington Post, September 15

available at Amazon
Officium Sancti Miniatis (Florence, Arcivescovado, s.c.), Coro Viri Galilaei, Ensemble San Felice

(released on July 8, 2016)
Bongiovanni GB5193-2 | 107'03"
[CD booklet]
The music we call Gregorian chant was not a monolithic, unified repertory. Melodies and texts varied widely from place to place, century to century. The only way to appreciate this is to study medieval manuscripts, where individual differences are manifested, especially in the feasts of local saints. This beautiful new recording on the Bongiovanni label offers one such unusual selection, a rare set of chants for the Divine Office in honor of St. Minias, a third-century martyr whose relics are venerated at the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte overlooking Florence. For those seeking to lower their blood pressure during an overheated election season, this calming music is a balm.

Giovanni Alpigiano edited the musical source, a 12th-century antiphoner used in Florence Cathedral and now in the collection of the city’s archiepiscopal archive. I happen to be familiar with it because of research conducted for the CANTUS Project during my graduate school studies, a manuscript containing several rare or unique offices for unusual Italian saints. This recording by two Florentine chant choirs, the Coro Viri Galilaei and Ensemble San Felice, does not attempt to re-create these medieval prayer services in their complete form. Although lessons drawn from the saint’s vita are inserted between the matins responsories, minor prayers and versicles are omitted, as are all but the first couple of verses of psalms and canticles. The focus is on the chants found in the manuscript, although the recording does not include some of them, such as the alternate invitatory and a string of extra antiphons at the end of Lauds.

The Coro Viri Galilaei sings most of the pieces, and the women, who sing the chants of the first nocturn of Matins, have an especially pretty, meditative sound. The smaller Ensemble San Felice sings the third nocturn, with a tone slightly more refined than the men of the Coro Viri Galilaei, greater in number, who sing the second nocturn. In any case, with this sort of liturgical music, some roughness around the edges of the voices only adds to the appeal, as in some of the solo contributions. The two directors, Enzo Ventroni and Federico Bardazzi, prefer a free-flowing style of chant performance rather than trying to retrofit later metric patterns onto this music notated without rhythmic durations. The sound, recorded in a place called the Villa Calloria, has a long acoustic ring similar to what you would hear in a church of stone.
Keith Glaeske, Charles Downey, and Lila Collamore, Firenze (Florence), Arcivescovado - Biblioteca, s.c. (Index of chants, CANTUS Database)

This unusual manuscript also has an alternate Office for Nativity of Mary, with texts drawn from Song of Songs, not found in any other sources and so apparently unique to Florence Cathedral. It also includes special offices for Saint Zenobius, the first bishop of Florence; Saint Vitus, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers; Saint Apollinaris of Ravenna; Saint Donatus of Arezzo; and Saint Syrus, first bishop of Pavia.


At TCR: The Weekly Stream

Get your Internet streaming music fix for the week:

Charles T. Downey, The Weekly Stream (The Classical Review, September 21)


Latest on Forbes: World Premiere of A. Schreier's Hamlet at Theater-an-der-Wien

The Shakespeare Quadricentennial is upon us, hard, and Shakespeare music content is sprouting up wherever we look. If it is just rehashing the regularly played Verdi operas, then that is not much. Better to have something unknown revived, like the Bregenz Festival did with Amleto by Franco Faccio and with a libretto by Arrigo Boito (REVIEW) or commission a new work altogether. That is what the Theater-an-der-Wien did, with Hamlet, set to music by Arno Schreier and Thomas Jonigk writing an almost Shakespeare-free libretto to it. The result, premiered last week, was good, even if good (or OK) is not good enough, for an opera to leave a notable mark. In addition I briefly recap some of the performances that I have seen at the Theater-an-der-Wien in the last two years, which were not always satisfying but never made me waver in my admiration for this little stagione house that could; that bright spot on the cultural scene in Vienna. Full review here:

To Succeed Or Not To Succeed: Theater-An-Der-Wien World Premiere Of "Hamlet"


At Washington Classical Review

Charles T. Downey, Washington Concert Opera marks 30 years with a bel canto feast (Washington Classical Review, September 19)

---, Critic’s Choice for 2016-17 season (Washington Classical Review, September 13)

In the Post: Dancing to the Gran Partita

available at Amazon
Mozart, Serenade in B-flat Major ("Gran Partita"), Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, P. Herreweghe
(Harmonia Mundi, 1995)
Charles T. Downey, PostClassical Ensemble presents Mozart through a different lens (Washington Post, September 19)
PostClassical Ensemble likes to refract familiar music through a different lens. For its season opener, heard on Saturday evening at Sidney Harman Hall, the piece of music was Mozart’s “Serenade in B-flat Major,” K. 361/370a. Executive director Joseph Horowitz created a three-part, rather fanciful production involving drama and dance.

When Mozart settled in Vienna he cast about looking for any kind of sustainable work. This serenade for eight woodwinds, four horns and double bass was one of several pieces likely intended for virtuoso wind players at the Imperial Court. Its performance, the evening’s main attraction, was less raucous, more polite than the one given on historical instruments by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Library of Congress a decade ago, for example.

Fatma Daglar produced a limpid sound, as if buoyed on a cloud, in the famous opening oboe phrase of the Adagio. The basset horn parts, played on modern versions of the instrument, were shaky at times and sometimes rushed. The bassoons were solid on the bass lines, including Truman Harris, a late, uncredited substitution on first bassoon. Conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez probably got in the way of the musicians more than helped them, and the persistent squeak of his shoes on the stage’s shiny floor distracted the ears.

In the evening’s first part, Philip Hosford played the character of Salieri, extended from Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus.” Three student musicians played two Mozart pieces, not listed in the program, revealing nervousness in breath support and intonation. At the end of the evening, the musicians repeated three movements from the serenade, to accompany the Washington Ballet Studio Company in a beautiful new choreography by Igal Perry. Of all the possible intentions for this music, dance is not one of them, but it was at least encouraging to see this company’s dancers moving to the sounds of live music again.
This was Igal Perry's debut with Washington Ballet. With his Peridance Contemporary Dance Company, he made a choreography for PostClassical Ensemble's performance of Falla's El Amor Brujo in 2011. For that his choreography missed the mark, at least for me, but here he made something quite beautiful. It would be interesting to see what he did with the entire serenade. Twelve dancers in unisex gray shorts and sleeveless tops formed male-female pairs, with the basic number of four pairs sometimes contracted, sometimes enlarged. The famous opening of the Adagio, the first number in the choreography, was realized in movement as the dancers slowly walked around the space to the "squeezebox" chordal patterns that open the piece. The soaring long-note melody was matched by graceful lifts of women with their legs splayed apart.

The triple meter of the second menuet movement began with three dancers, one woman and two men, and elements of French courtly dance seem to have played in Perry's imagination. Another couple was added for the trio, while the largest number of dancers appeared in the bubbling, active choreography that went with the Finale movement.

Charles T. Downey, Boulez Pairs Mozart with Berg (Ionarts, August 27, 2009)

---, OAE @ LOC (Ionarts, December 9, 2006)

Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…What La Voce Strumentale and their do-it-all leader Dmitry Sinkovsky deliver is truly rock’n’roll-baroque. Just when you think that the race towards expressive extremes in baroque must surely have come to an end or enter the realm of the ridiculous, another band shows that the envelope can still be pushed and excite.…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Classical CD Of The Week: The Vivaldi Vanity Package


Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…The kicker of this release is clearly the rarely performed and rarely recorded Liebesmahl der Apostel (“The Holy Supper of the Apostles”). Written for the male choral society of Dresden, which Wagner led for just shy of three years (his immediate successors were Ferdinand Hiller and Robert Schumann), it is as a 1914 review suggested, namely that “the work surely does not rank among his masterworks, but it is interesting and valuable enough as an excellent student work.” (Dr. Georg Kaiser, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, v.81)…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Classical CD Of The Week: Bruckner Rising, Wagner Rarity


CD Reviews: Erkki Melartin / New York Polyphony

Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Neglected Finn merits a closer listen
Washington Post, September 9

available at Amazon
E. Melartin, Traumgesicht (inter alia), S. Isokoski, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, H. Lintu

(released on June 10, 2016)
Ondine ode1283-2 | 56'50"
A composer as good as Erkki Melartin should be better known. I, at least, have not heard any Washington ensemble perform this Finnish composer’s music in the past decade, although it has occasionally cropped up at places such as Bard College, where Leon Botstein champions less-performed composers. This recent release from the Ondine label, which recorded Melartin’s six symphonies two decades ago, features excellent world-premiere recordings of three more of his works. Let jaded listeners who thought they had nothing new and beautiful to discover rejoice.

Melartin (1875-1937) composed his tone poem “Traumgesicht” (“Dream Face”) in 1910, adapting his own incidental music for a Symbolist play from five years earlier. Hints of the harmonic style of Debussy abound, evoking the murky world of Gabriele d’Annunzio’s “Un sogno d’una mattina primavera” with ethereal combinations of instruments. At the same time, there are soaring, chromatic moments of full-bodied sound — a reminder that Melartin’s teacher in Vienna, Robert Fuchs, also taught Mahler, Sibelius and Korngold.

The second piece, “Marjatta,” brings in elements of Finnish nationalism. The redoubtable Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski deploys a shimmering high range, veritably purring on the high, soft B-flats in the opening description of silvery birds singing — and it gets even better from there. This orchestral version, premiered in 1915, features more iridescent orchestration as backdrop to an odd story of Marjatta, drawn from the end of the “Kalevala,” the Finnish national epic, about a girl who miraculously conceives a son by eating a lingon­berry.

The latest of the three works is “Sininen helmi” (“The Blue Pearl,” Op. 160). The first full-length ballet written in Finland, it premiered in 1931. A prince, shipwrecked on an island in the South Seas, fights a giant octopus to win the magical blue pearl in its crown, as well as a princess the monster is holding captive. Hannu Lintu, who conducts the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in these fine performances, has made an arrangement of pieces from the ballet’s first two acts.

Highlights include a gossamer-delicate “Danse des Nénuphares” (“Dance of the Water Lilies”) and the delightful number for the “Poissons à voiles” (“Long-Finned Goldfish”), which combines languid strings, harp-like piano and tinkling percussion. The only regret is that the disc doesn’t feature the entire score.

available at Amazon
Roma Æterna (Guerrero, Palestrina, Victoria), New York Polyphony

(released on August 12, 2016)
BIS-2203 | 72'07"
In 2006, New York Polyphony formed as an all-male vocal quartet specializing in Renaissance polyphony, in the style of the Hilliard Ensemble and other groups. After all, most of this repertory was intended for all-male ensembles, with either boys or countertenors on the top part.

In the group’s first few years, its sound was good but not yet thrilling. In its latest release, however, with new singers on the middle parts and the excellent sound engineering of the Swedish label BIS, the puzzle’s pieces finally fit together.

Two masterful, often-recorded settings of the Latin Ordinary, by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Tomás Luis de Victoria, provide the frame for a handful of motets and Gregorian chants, giving the partial impression of two complete Renaissance liturgies.

Pitch frequency was not standardized in the Renaissance. Therefore, transposing this music to a range most comfortable for the singers of a given group is perfectly authentic, as well as just making sense.

Palestrina notated his “Missa Papae Marcelli” in a high key, suitable for the boys singing the highest part. To make that top part work for its countertenor, New York Polyphony transposes the pitch down by a perfect fifth, which shifts this music completely into the darker, heavier male range, with the four lowest parts sung by baritones and basses. The tenor Andrew Fuchs and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody join the quartet for this six-part Mass, and the countertenor Tim Keeler takes the second soprano part that’s woven into the glorious triple canon of the “Dona nobis pacem.” The same singers do an equally beautiful job with Palestrina’s six-part “Tu es Petrus,” on the crucial papal text inscribed in giant letters around the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Even transposed down a step, however, Victoria’s “Missa O quam gloriosum,” for four voices, does not sit quite right for counter­tenor Geoffrey Williams. It is complemented by Victoria’s and Palestrina’s disparate settings of the antiphon “Gaudent in coelis,” written for the feasts of multiple martyrs; the ensemble gives long-breathed drive to the ecstatic, overlapping repetitions of the words “exultant sine fine,” as the martyrs rejoice ceaselessly in heaven.

The disc ends with a Palestrina classic, the motet “Sicut cervus.” The balanced, rarefied sound of this recording, captured in St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, is another reminder of the rewards that can come from meeting older music on its own terms.
Gabriele d'Annunzio, Un sogno d'una mattina primavera


Blast from the Past: An Open Letter on Matters Gustav Mahler

An open, but unsent, letter to Fanfare Magazine from 2011 on the subject of Lynn René Bayley and her hyperbolic review of Naxos’ box of Mahler Symphonies for the Fanfare Magazine. A bit of a rant, but I found myself amused by it, still, when I found it just now.

Dear Fanfare Editor,

I have tried, as best I can, to ignore the exacerbating reviews of Lynn René Bayley. I browse ahead in my Fanfare issue, carefully, to find her name (all-too-often). Then I skip the review, because I value my coronary and mental health.

Unfortunately I failed in that precaution when reading the review of Naxos’ Mahler box set. What a travesty, what a befuddling mess.

But rather than succumbing to the unhealthy (and uncouth) tirade that simmers just beneath the surface (peppered with damning blanket statements), I will try to quote-and-comment on some of the more unnerving elements. (I will leave aside her mediocre writing while noting in passing that it’s come a long way from her unadulterated hatchet jobs of yesteryear.)

After a series of platitudes and a highly superfluous “Mahler was not always popular” preamble, we arrive at:

LRB: “Only the two orchestras that Mahler himself had conducted, the Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic, had anything like a Mahler style in their blood.”

Oh, boy. For starters, what’s that “Mahler style” precisely? A musical gene he transmitted by conducting Beethoven with these bands? The same (“correct”) style LRB claims doesn’t exist, just one paragraph further down? When it comes to performances of Mahler, what did the Vienna Philharmonic have, that the Concertgebouw, for example, didn’t? The VPO performed Mahler Symphonies a whopping 34 times between 1900 and 1920; and an average 18 times per decade (!) until the seventies when things eventually, reluctantly picked up. The Vienna Philharmonic, elusive “Mahler Style” or not, was not a natural Mahler orchestra. The RCO, in comparison, performed Mahler Symphonies 180 times in the first two decades of the last century. And, except for the dark 40s, never less than 73 times per decade. The New York Philharmonic performed Mahler Symphonies a mere six times between 1900 and 1920 and made up for lost opportunities only starting with the 60s (137 performances). The Prague, Munich, and Cologne Orchestras, for example, have more of a Mahler-the-composer tradition than either Vienna or New York.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphonies,
A.Wit, M.Halász/Warsaw PO, Polish NRSO

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.1,
M.Halász/Polish NRSO

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.2,
A.Wit/Polish NRSO

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.8,
A.Wit/Warsaw PO

LRB: “[Mahler’s] symphonies are unique in being able to withstand several different approaches, from fairly swift, taut, and dramatic to slow, alternately relaxed or tense, and brooding. Moreover, I’m pretty sure Mahler himself changed the way he conducted his own symphonies from year to year, depending on his mood at the time.”

What a staggering assortment of hapless fluff, re-hashed clichés, conjecture, and inane opinioneering in just two sentences. And still nothing at all about the collection at hand.

LRB: “This particular set, primarily the work of two Polish conductors, is fascinating in that it gives us Mahler not in a German or Anglo-Saxon vernacular, which is how most of us came to know it (even through Klemperer, Walter, Barb[ir]olli, and Horenstein), but rather through an Eastern European vernacular.”

Oy veh. Horenstein and Barbirolli aside, it might be worth pointing out that Otto Klemperer was from Wrocław, formerly Breslau. That would be in… you’ve guessed it: Poland. The son of Silesian Jews, Bruno Schlesinger, a.k.a. Bruno Walter, learned his trade in Wrocław (Breslau), Bratislava (Pressburg), and Riga. And one of the great European post-War pioneers of Mahler was the Czech Rafael Kubelik. How much more Eastern European do these men have to be for it to count? What is more, Michael Halász isn’t even Polish, but from linguistically and culturally rather distinct Hungary.

LRB: “…[T]his is Mahler with a Polish-Bohemian accent, and as such is probably closer to what the composer himself heard in his mind when writing it.

Aha! A 21st century production of Mahler Symphonies with an allegedly Polish flavor—things Polish not actually being particularly related to Mahler—is more likely what he heard in his mind when writing the music than any or most of what has come before? Including the (wildly varying) interpretations of those who worked with him? Maestro Halász, it seems, is now nudged from being Polish toward being vaguely Bohemian. It’s the right direction, at least, though “Bohemian” is still quite distinct from Hungarian.

LRB goes on to gush about the set and the recorded sound in ways I have trouble comprehending, but taste and experience being subjective matters it wouldn’t be fair to grill her for (dis)liking this or that. In our appreciation of the 8th Symphony under Wit we actually agree; in her assessment of the soloists as “weak” we do not. Unknown, yes, but weak? Well, tastes…

I’d agree that the Wheeler version of the 10th is so interesting that its inclusion is a merit to the Naxos set. To suggest it’s the second best after—of all the many available versions—Wigglesworth’s obscure non-commercial BBC-freebe 10th is just a wee bit bizarre. Peculiarity continues when she lists her grave disappointments at the hands of Messrs. Solti, Zander, Levine, Bernstein, Segerstam, Dohnányi, Thomas, and Tennstedt and their “supposedly top-drawer cycles”.

Peculiar because Zander, Dohnányi, and Levine never (or not yet) recorded complete cycles. And I have yet to meet a person that ever claimed that Segerstam’s hopelessy out-of-print ‘Danish’Mahler cycle on Chandos was even mid-drawer. But it gets stranger, still:

LRB: “…and since several of my first choices are rare and/or out-of-print recordings (such as the Mehta Second, Tennstedt Fifth, and Kubelík Seventh on the out-of-print New York Philharmonic boxed set), as a whole it is certainly first choice as a complete cycle.”

Halász-Wit-Olson is “certainly [the] first choice as a complete cycle”? It’s difficult not to chortle at that statement, especially with that “certainly” added. I wonder if she could find even three Mahlerians to agree with that statement. But again: taste, arguing, and such. Plain wrong, meanwhile, is the idea that Mehta’s Second is out of print; it is currently making its happy and inexpensive rounds on “Decca Legends”. To be had for a tenner, and worth every penny. Tennstedt’s Fifth, apart from perennial availability in his complete Mahler box (EMI, retailing at something between $20 and $50, lest she meant the live version, which is available in the newer box on Warner or individually used and imported]) can still be gotten with relative ease on its most recent installment on EMI double forte. (The Kubelik New York Seventh is tricky to come by, admittedly.)

LRB: “Even at Naxos’s list price, it’s cheaper than any of the cycles I cited in the above paragraph…”

Oh, but it isn’t. Arkiv’s list price is $108.98, the sale price $82.49, Amazon’s official price as of writing this is $71.62. And although getting the set for $60 is a distinct possibility, that makes it more expensive than some of the most venerable sets out there. In fact, it makes it one of the most expensive ones. Chailly’s Mahler (Decca) has a lower list price. Bertini’s Mahler (EMI) is one of the great Mahler-bargains. Bernstein’s New York Cycle, even in the beautiful Carnegie Hall edition, is less expensive at $50 and the DG cycle in its latest issue costs less than $40. Kublik’s Bavarian cycle on DG has come down in price below the $50 mark, ditto imports of Decca’s Eloquence re-issue of Sinopoli’s Mahler. Add to that three anniversary sets from DG and EMI with different conductors… it would be possible to go on, but boring.

Mahler sets should probably be reviewed by someone who has at least some idea of what they are writing about… and someone who doesn’t get tripped up by pesky “facts” quite so often.

Almost sincerely,

Jens F. Laurson