Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 25 June 2010

Mahler: Symphony No.2: Paavo Järvi, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Alice Coote – mezzo
Natalie Dessay – soprano
Orfeón Donostiarra
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi – conductor
Recorded live at the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 6-8 May 2009 Stereo DDD
Virgin Classics 50999 694586 0 6 [23:17+61:54]

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Another Mahler 2 for the composer’s anniversary year, but not one that stands out from the crowd. Competency is evident in every aspect of this recording: the orchestra, the choir, the soloists, the sound. But there are no surprises here, and Paavo Järvi errs on the side of caution in every aspect of his interpretation.

Or perhaps I should say lack of interpretation. Järvi takes pride in his fidelity to details of the score (as he explains in the video interview below), and true enough, he doesn’t put a foot wrong. But this music needs more from the podium, it needs passion and drive and at least half an eye on the bigger picture. It is telling that the last Mahler disc from Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra was entitled ‘Mahler Movements’, because this latest project also focuses on the individual moments and movement at the expense of the whole.

Most of the first movement is slower than you will hear elsewhere. The tempos call to mind Rattle’s famous CBSO recording, but where Rattle creates tension and anticipation through his restraint, Järvi’s slower tempos have the effect of draining the music of its drama and energy. Much of this first movement sounds positively relaxed, which often makes for pleasant listening, but is hardly the intended effect.

That laid-back approach is more appropriate to the second movement, which is largely successful as a result. In the vast discography of this symphony, interpretations of the second and third movements fall into two broad categories, with some conductors pulling the music around, emphasising the phrasing through exaggerated rubato, while others maintain a steady pace throughout. And despite his otherwise relaxed demeanour, Järvi is very much in the first category. It is another case, I think, of concentrating on the moment at the expense of the whole. Questions of taste are also raised by the regular violin glissandos. True enough, they are written in the score, but their emphatic presentation, were other conductors would be inclined to tone them down, speaks of a curiously blind faith in the stated performance directions.

The orchestra gets its chance to shine in the finale, and there are moments here of quite phenomenal playing. The percussion section both perform well and come across distinctly in the audio balance, allowing the individual instruments to be clearly distinguished. The brass is less impressive, with intonation problems in many of the solos, and regular spilts in the tuttis.

An impressive turn from both soloists, although it seems a frustrating waste of talent booking Natalie Dessay for such a small role. But both singers, and Dessay in particular, bring a sense of operatic bravado to the movement. And it turns out, in the last 20 minutes or so, that Järvi has one final surprise up his sleeve, Orfeón Donostiarra, a Basque concert choir, presumably invited to Frankfurt specifically for the project. They have a dark, focussed tone, an impressive dynamic range and spot-intonation.

All of which goes to make the ending of the work the highlight of this performance. As I say, I’ve no specific complaints with any of the playing up to here, it is just a very middle of the road interpretation. The sound quality is good, especially given that this is a live recording. In fact, it is only the modern audio standards (and possibly the surrealist cover art) that distinguish this from the many unexceptional recordings of the work from the 1970s and 80s. A competent but old-fashioned Resurrection Symphony.

Gavin Dixon

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