At least for me, the symphony is the pinnacle of orchestral music. Yes, there are wonderful tone poems, overtures, ballets, concertos, incidental music, and such, but by golly, the symphony is where it’s at. Although symphonies come in many shapes and sizes, most classical music fans tend to think of the typical symphony as having four movements: an opening movement set in sonata form; a brief, often lighthearted scherzo; a slow movement, more serious, reflective, perhaps even somber; and then a finale that ramps up the energy level and often builds to some sort of rousing finish. Throughout the piece, the listener feels as if she is being led along some more or less clearly defined tonal path, with perhaps some twist and turns but never a sense of being lost. The musical journey is comfortable, largely because it is so familiar. Four movements, clearly defined format, familiar sounds…
What we have here are two striking symphonies that stretch the usual form of the symphony, one by a very well-known composer and the other by a composer of whom many classical music fans have never heard. One is unusual in having five movements, the other is all in one movement. Both are large-scale, intense, emotionally demanding works that are the antithesis of hummable background music. Rest assured, however, that neither work employs extreme dissonance or other such sonic shenanigans to assault the senses. Yes, they are demanding works, but they both can be rewarding to the listener with the patience and ambition to give them a fair hearing.
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (Performing version by Deryck Cooke). Osmo Vänskä, Minnesota Orchestra. BIS-2396 SACD.
JJP and me. Like that previous recording, this new release is both splendidly played and splendidly recorded (I listened to the CD and two-channel SACD layers; there is also a 5.0 surround layer). Vänskä tends towards slower tempos and less exuberant peaks of volume in some of the big climaxes; the net result is an impression of great transparency, but at times, especially in the opening Adagio, I found myself missing the sense of urgency that conductors such as Chailly, Bernstein, and Dausgaard have elicited from the score. Nevertheless, for the work as a whole, this new BIS release is as fine a version as you will find on the market. It is probably the best recommendation possible for those listeners who are coming to this work for the first time, for it presents what is arguably the most responsible representation of Mahler’s unfinished score in an interpretation and performance that brings out every phrase without exaggeration or editorializing, all presented in state-of-the-art-sound by the BIS recording team.
Christopher Tyler Nickel: Symphony No. 2. Clyde Mitchell, Northwest Sinfonia. AVIE AV2456.
here and here) that draws together musicians from the Seattle, Vancouver, Oregon, San Francisco, and other orchestras as circumstances permit to record in the St. Thomas Chapel at Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. The engineers have done an excellent job of recording the orchestra in this venue, the resulting sound quality being full-range, recorded a bit closer than we have begun being accustomed to in this age of so many live concert recordings, which this is not.
That might make it sound as though this is depressing music; however, that is not the case. Serious music, yes, but not depressing. There are motifs that recur throughout the work in various instrumental guises with varying levels of emphasis and emotional intensity. All sections of the orchestra get their chance to contribute, but the work sounds like an organic whole, all of one piece, rather than a parade of virtuoso exhibitions. Although it in a sense serves as a fine showcase for the orchestra, it in no sense sounds like a concerto for orchestra. In the end, listening to it is a rewarding experience, and although it is an intense experience, it can be an uplifting, energizing experience. A stretching experience, if you will.