Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Alice Coote, Natalie Dessay, Orfeon Donostiarra; Paavo Jarvi, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Virgin Classics 50999 694586 0 6 (2-disc set).

Interestingly, during the lifetime of composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), his Symphony No. 2 was among his most-popular works. Today, I would hazard to guess that claim goes to his shorter symphonies, the First or the Fourth, at least judging by the number of recordings one finds of them. In any case, there is much to admire in the Second Symphony, which Mahler referred to as the "Resurrection" Symphony for obvious reasons.

I recall conductor Bernard Haitink, a noted Mahlerian, remarking years ago something to the effect that there is enough drama in Mahler for the music to speak for itself if it's simply played straight, without too much personal embellishment. Conductor Paavo Jarvi and his Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra carry out this dictum perhaps too carefully in their reading of the Second Symphony, rendering it as beautiful music, to be sure, but a tad lifeless.

Anyway, as usual Mahler was toying with the ideas of life and death in the Second Symphony, in particular promoting his views on the joys of the next life, after resurrection. The Symphony is a long work, even by Mahler's standards, its five movements totaling usually from eighty to ninety minutes, here under Maestro Jarvi about eighty-five minutes. Mahler took over six years to write the work, off and on, not just because it was so long but because of other commitments, premiering the piece in 1895.

The first movement is a long funeral march, which is not uncommon in Mahler symphonies. The composer said of it he was laying to rest the hero of his First Symphony and asking the question, What's next? Critics, always trying to make connections among Mahler's symphonies, often conclude that all nine (or ten or eleven) Mahler symphonies form one big, continuous whole. In any case, under Jarvi the funeral procession seems a bit more lumbering than usual, but at least Jarvi keeps up the forward momentum well enough.

The slow Andante is in landler form, a dance precursor to the waltz. The composer said it represented memories of happy times in the hero's life, yet it seems somewhat at odds with the rest of the music. One just needs to go with it because it is lovely. Besides, Jarvi does his best work here, keeping the mood as consistent as possible with the preceding movement, which, as I say, is not particularly easy.

Next, we have in the third section rondo one of Mahler's typically sarcastic waltzes, sounding like parody or burlesque, apparently mocking Man's aspirations in life. However, Jarvi seems intent on making it milder and more refined than maybe Mahler intended.

The brief, quiet fourth movement, Urlicht, acts as a kind of introduction to the massive choral Finale (and, yes, Mahler worried that the conclusion would remind listeners too much of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He got over it. And, to be fair, the choral part of the movement only takes up in the second half). The work ends in a glorious last judgment and resurrection, or, as Mahler put it, "I shall die, so as to live." Jarvi brings the music to an appropriately moving close.

Virgin engineers recorded the performance in 2009, capturing a very open, very clear, very detailed presentation, yet not without a proper degree of natural ambient bloom, mid-bass warmth, and realistic orchestral depth. We also hear an extra-wide dynamic range, which might lead some listeners to turn up the volume, a mistake when the big crescendos appear. The overall impression one gets is of slightly close-up sound--truthful, though--with a satisfying deep-bass impact.

A minor snag: At eighty-five minutes, Jarvi's reading barely misses fitting on a single disc, so there is a second CD involved, with Virgin including only the twenty-three-minute first movement on disc one. Fortunately, Virgin priced the two discs at the cost of a single-disc, so at least you don't wind up paying for an expensive set.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa