Classical CD Reviews: François-Xavier Roth conducts Mahler 3 and Benjamin Zander conducts Mahler 9

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Benjamin Zander conducts a conspicuously fine Mahler Nine; François-Xavier Roth’s new account of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 proffers nothing particularly special.

François-Xavier Roth’s new account of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 is somehow both wonderful and underwhelming at the same time.

What it gets right most often relates to color and gesture. The brass glissandos and sul ponticello string writing in the first movement, for instance, comes across potently (as do many woodwind and brass trills over those pages). Similarly, there are some fine solos (particularly from violin and flugelhorn) in the big third movement; the oboe pitch bends in the fourth are marvelously characterful; and the balance of woodwind descant with string melody in the finale is perfectly calibrated.

That said, there’s nothing particularly special about this Mahler Three.

Expressively, too much of it is impersonal: the second movement lacks personality and the third, especially in the “postilion” sections, is chilly. There’s no mystery or magic to be found in those beguiling, enchanting pages; and the climaxes just before that movement’s the coda lack any semblance of terror.

Likewise, one misses the extroverted exuberance of Leonard Bernstein’s late New York Philharmonic reading of the fifth movement: this one might play up the harmonic and emotional ambiguity of Mahler’s writing more, but it’s less enticing, and, overall, feels broader than it actually is. The finale, for its strengths (a good sense of motion and direction at the beginning, strong attention to dynamic details and articulations throughout), wants for intensity.

That’s unfortunate, given what goes right here – the latter includes Sara Mingardo’s fine, dusky-toned solos in the fourth movement’s Nietzche setting – but, given the sheer number of excellent Mahler Thirds on the market (which, among many others, includes Pierre Boulez’s with the Vienna Philharmonic and Bernard Haitink’s with the Bavarian Radio Symphony), there’s not much to recommend this one.

At this point, a good half-century after they entered the regular repertoire, pretty much every orchestra worth its salt has the Mahler symphonies in their collective fingers. That’s true, too, of college and youth ensembles: certainly the First and, maybe, the Fifth Symphonies are terrific showpieces. Less frequently played by younger groups are the Sixth and Ninth.

Yet, a couple of years ago, Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (BPYO) came out with a stirring recording of Mahler’s mighty Sixth. Now they’re back with an account of the even weightier Ninth.

The Ninth is Mahler’s valedictory completed symphonic statement. It’s a piece that explores the fringes – of harmony and instrumental technique, expression, and psychology – even as it alludes to lots of familiar icons: marches, waltzes, ländlers, hymns, and the like. There are lots of good reasons why it’s a piece usually reserved for seasoned professionals.

But the BPYO’s new recording suggests that that needn’t always be the case. Surely, this is an orchestra that plays at a level rivalling top-flight ensembles. And, in Zander, they’ve got a dynamic conductor who’s both an inspiring teacher and experienced Mahlerian.

All of those elements come together, more or less consistently, in this Ninth.

Throughout, there’s a strong sense of dramatic progression in the interpretation. The first movement’s opening violin and horn tune starts out about as unaffected and fresh-sounding as one could imagine – maybe it’s even a little too naïve – but as the big movement proceeds the orchestra’s sound and playing becomes progressively darker and more intense.

Nor does it lack for beauty. No, when it should be, everything’s lush, warm, and full of wonder. Textures are lean, colors delicately shaded, tempos fluid. A couple of deliberate spots notwithstanding, this is a captivating reading.

The central movements also come across well. In the second, the BPYO’s playing is appropriately droll and attentive to Mahler’s sometimes manic dynamic contrasts. For the central part of the third, Zander draws an impressive degree of emotional turbulence and menace from his band; that movement’s trumpet solos are ideally done, too.

Where these movements fall a bit short is in drawing out the urgency that the best performances of this piece deliver. It’s partly a matter of tempo – in the third movement, things start off a hair slower than they might and the contrast between the outer thirds and the meditative middle one isn’t as pronounced as one might expect — partly a matter of youth. Regardless, nothing’s bad, just sometimes a bit dialed-down.

The finale, on the other hand, delivers the goods quite well, and that despite Zander’s broad, Bernstein-ish tempos. Strings and horns play their recurring hymn-like theme with richness and nobility while the coda is perfectly focused: warm, tender, and with a stunning fade-out – one of the finest on record – to boot.

It adds up to a conspicuously fine Mahler Nine. Perhaps not the only one you’d want in your collection, but this is a piece that defies a single interpretation anyway. What you’re looking for (usually) in a recording of this Ninth is musical thoughtfulness paired with interpretative ideas that grab you. This one offers both.

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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