Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Personal Recommendation

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Christophe Eschenbach, conductor
Simona Suturova, Soprano; Yvonne Naef, Mezzo-Soprano
Ondine Records, ODE 1134-2D


I caught a commercial flight Sunday night into Philadelphia, where I'm spending the week working, and I noticed a sizeable group of mostly young-ish folks (early 30s, I'd say, most of them) walking about me as I exited the airport terminal. There were a lot of them, they were casually but nicely dressed, and there seemed to be a high proportion of Asians among them. And I noticed that they all had laminated plain white numbered tags on their bags and backpacks. Hmmm. As I waited for my ride downtown, I saw a Chinese-American-looking woman standing by a doorway. She was smiling and addressing group members as they walked past her, telling them that their bus was across the drive and down to the left. She clearly recognized the other group members by sight.

I finally walked up and inquired about the large group. "Yeah, there are 130 of us," she said (I believe that was the number). "Who are you?" I asked, "What is your group?" "We're the Philadelphia Orchestra," she said. They were returning from a three week tour. She was quite busy directing, so I did not get a chance to ask where they had been, but I did mention that I was just contemplating their new Mahler Second release. "You should get it," she said. "It's awesome!" That qualifies as a bona fide endorsement in my book, if a biased one.

And so I did. And so it is, awesome.

First played in 1895, the Second Symphony is one of Mahler's most enduring and popular works. Despite its nickname, it is not a religious piece. Mahler does grapple with the larger questions of human existence, using texts from his beloved Des knaben wunderhorn to ask the Big Questions, why are we here and does anything of us live on after death, etc. But these are really contemplations on the unknowable, and have nothing to do with resurrection (unless perhaps he was referring to his career after the grudging reception of his First Symphony). "Pantheism" might be a better moniker. Whatever we call it, it is a haunting and lyrically beautiful piece, one which, like so much of Mahler, seems to take on immense challenges of musical storytelling, and it delivers a correspondingly immense payoff 90 minutes later. I always feel at the end of a Mahler symphony (at least my favorites) as though some great planetary alignment has been performed before me, and I'm left with a sense of exhaustion and peace. There's something in the act of concluding a lengthy piece of music, at least as Mahler does it, that lays a very grand vision before us with eloquence and assurance. The man definitely found the right profession.

I bought the disc on iTunes (as is my wont lately, and I guess forever more), and typically there is no documentation. Also, I'm always reminded that the recommendations one finds at the iTunes Music Store are largely without merit. (I occasionally put in my two cents' worth there, so one can look at all this several ways.) Some dweeb said the recording had "weak brass." That was the whole review, actually, those two words: weak brass. Thanks, chuckles. Of course there is no such deficit, with the brass or anything else. This is top shelf playing from one of the world's great orchestras, and the sound quality is excellent. There was also some discussion about Christophe Eschenbach's brisk tempi, but I find them exactly right. There is not undue lingering, but nothing is glossed over, and conductor & orchestra luxuriate in all the appropriate moments to ensure the message gets across.

Indeed, I'm hard pressed to find much of anything to criticize. If I would register a complaint, it might be with the choice of soloists in the singing roles. Slovak Soprano Simona Suturova (say that several times swiftly) and Swiss Mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef are enlisted for the final movement's solo parts, joined by the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, and the soloists didn't sit particularly well with me. I must insert my standard caution here that these musicians are very likely expertly chosen and perhaps even inspired--certainly, I could not make better suggestions; indeed, I can't really think of any singing in this period / style that I even like. Stylistically, I'm sure they are in complete synchronicity with what Mahler envisioned when he wrote the piece, and most appropriate to the style of music of this period. But I find myself rankling at the wide, ceaseless, operatic vibrato. We also hear it in the solo violin work, and the affectation is so unstinting that one wonders whether the singers snore with a strong tremulant. Does it ever shut off? Does one EVER sing a steady tone? But if you're not one to cavil about a singer's vibrato generally, I feel confident you won't bat an eye here.

My previous favorite recording of this symphony has been the really splendid late '80s EMI disc of Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and I have a soft spot for Antoni Wit's unique vision with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on Naxos. But this Philadelphia Orchestra recording will now join these at the top of the list. With a previously-recorded Mahler Sixth also in the catalog, one wonders if a full cycle is in the works.



shrimplate said...

Usually I gravitate to the 6th thru 8th, but now I've got a hankering for the 2nd and 3rd.

I'm sure I've mentioned this before: I share your concern about modern singers' use of vibrato. In most of the vocal music I like to listen to that's stylistically out of place anyway.

wunelle said...

I'm stuck on the earlier ones. I suppose it's familiarity! The further afield from the fifth, the less familiar I am.