Classical CD Review: Vänskä’s Mahler Six, Harding’s Mahler Nine, Louise Farrenc Symphonies, Handel & Haydn Society plays Haydn and Mozart

Two Mahler symphonies, one sluggish the other intense, while symphonies composed by Louise Farrenc, Mozart, and Haydn are done right.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

If you’ve ever wondered what Mahler’s epic Sixth Symphony sounds like in a performance completely devoid of heat, tension, or momentum, you’re going to love Osmo Vänskä’s new account of the piece with the Minnesota Orchestra. For the rest of us, well, we can rest in the knowledge that there are lots of better recordings of this score from which to choose.

It’s not that the Minnesotans don’t play well. They do: they’ve got all the notes in hand and, thanks to BIS’s excellent recorded sound, you can hear just about each one of the hundred-or-so-thousand of them in the score. The problem is entirely Vänskä’s approach to the piece, which is, generally, sluggish and lacking in any sense of Mahlerian Weltschmerz.

Some of the time, things are simply stiff: the first movement’s march motto, for instance, always feels held back, even when it crops up during the “Alma” theme (in which Vänskä, thankfully, kicks the tempo up a notch); it never treads with a sense of purpose, let alone “vehemence” (the “heftig” of the opening tempo marking). Similarly, the march-like music and the big, recurring chorales of the finale kill whatever energy has been built up during that movement’s phantasmagorical scenes, which are generally ear-catching.

Transitions, too, can be rigid: there’s nothing particularly “allmähig” (“gradual”) about the lead-in to the opening movement’s ethereal mountaintop interlude, for instance, or grandiose about the second’s lush climax.

The latter movement is problematic, too, even as Vänskä’s interpretation draws out stretches of beautiful, lyrical playing over its outer thirds. But, come the middle, things slog. Part of the reason is a matter of tempo: Vänskä’s is more of an Adagio than an Andante moderato. But, also, there’s the larger problem of the direction of the musical line, which is, overall, static and wanting for passion. (It’s not just a matter of speed: Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of this movement with the San Francisco Symphony is even slower by about a minute, but it packs far more emotional intensity and bite.)

Best is the scherzo, whose “wuchtig” (“heavy” or “powerful”) episodes drive nicely and whose ländlerisch passages are trippingly graceful.

But thirteen minutes of music can’t make up for an hour-plus of uneven drudgery. And that short scherzo is basically what this album has to recommend itself. If that’s worth it to you, by all means have at it. Otherwise, save yourself the time and money.

For an altogether great Mahler recording, look no further than Daniel Harding’s new account of the Ninth with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (SRSO). His is a thoroughly intense and characterful approach, embraced and played to the hilt by the SRSO, who are, in turn, flawlessly taped by Harmonia mundi’s engineering team.

In many ways, the great achievement of this Ninth is Harding’s searing take on the first movement. Here, he smartly balances the music’s delicate, wispy gestures and moments of incredible sonic power (the reprise of the opening “heartbeat” motive that Mahler marked “mit höchster Gewalt” – “with utmost force” – is as thunderous as I’ve heard it on disc), at the same time capturing the score’s visionary marriage of the simple and complex with aplomb. Indeed, the SRSO’s playing is so clean and textures so well-balanced that the peculiarities of Mahler’s late style – the fragmented gestures, intense rhythmic layerings, progressive scoring – positively leap out.

The Symphony’s subsequent movements don’t receive less attention, though they do come off as somewhat slighter in the shadow of this compelling opening one. Still, the second-movement ländler is plenty earthy: the strings really dig into their first two themes and the SRSO’s horns sound glorious throughout. And the third movement Burleske is thoroughly puckish and athletic.

In the finale, Harding returns to the basic approach of the first movement, giving equal weight to the fervent, recurring chorale and the chilly, spare interludes that frame it. His command of the music’s dramatic structure is total and the closing Adagissimo, in which the two styles finally come together, is at once heartbreaking and intensely beautiful.

If you don’t know the music of Louise Farrenc, you’re not alone: that she was one of the most accomplished female musicians of the 19th century hasn’t saved her music from oblivion. A piano virtuoso and prolific composer (especially of chamber music), she was championed by Berlioz and Schumann, and was the only woman awarded a professorship (in piano at the Paris Conservatory) at any major European music school during the 19th century.

Though she wrote primarily for the keyboard, Farrenc composed three symphonies during the 1840s; the last two are showcased on a new Naxos release from the Solistes Européens, Luxembourg led by Christoph König. By and large, König and his band do Farrenc’s Classically-influenced scores justice, playing them with rhythmic vigor, tonal color, and expressive spirit.

In the Second, the ghosts of Mozart and Beethoven aren’t too far removed from the music’s forms or gestures, but they’re distinguished by Farrenc’s remarkable lyrical gifts and sympathetic writing for woodwinds. König leads his ensemble in tight, exciting readings of the outer movements that are balanced by a genial account of the second and a rollicking one of the third.

Farrenc’s Third Symphony is cut from a similar stylistic cloth as the Second, though it still overflows with melodic invention and offers, in some ways, a more direct musical argument. König, again, presides over a lively performance of the piece, highlighted by a luminous account of the beautiful slow movement.

Harry Christophers’ new disc with the Handel and Haydn Society (H&H) continues their recent survey of early and late Haydn symphonies, now adding some Mozart to the mix with concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky playing the Violin Concerto no. 3.

First, the good.

That would be the symphonies, nos. 26 (Lamentatione) and 86, which are rendered with vigor and style. The former, with its quotations of plainchant (hence the subtitle) and driving rhythms, is played with searing intensity. Its first movement pulses with subdued fury while the second glides by in stately beauty.

In no. 86, Christophers leads a performance that constantly feels fresh and unpredictable. The first movement’s forzandi jump out, as do the second’s sudden contrasts of dynamics. He gets the obligatory third-movement minuet to sound anything but: here, it’s a real, buoyant dance. And the witty finale, with its almost aggressive cheerfulness, sparkles.

Then there’s Nosky’s Mozart. From a technical standpoint, it’s fine: she’s got the fingerwork easily in hand and everything’s in tune. Interpretively, though, her playing is mannered – phrases are clipped and, as a result, square – and a bit stale. It doesn’t help her case that Isabelle Faust’s recording of the complete Mozart concertos really set the modern period-performance bar in this repertoire just a couple years back. Nosky’s reading lacks the sparkle and freshness of Faust’s which, on top of everything else, is a bit more of a romp of an interpretation.

So this is a bit of a mixed bag: if you don’t know Faust’s Mozart, you may be more favorably inclined towards Nosky’s reading; or not. But the two Haydn symphonies are, by just about any measure, terrific.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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