Stretching the Symphony (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

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.

It must be said at the outset that even to call this a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 is in itself a bit of a stretch. Only the opening Adagio movement was actually completed by Mahler before his death in 1911, and several noted Mahler conductors such as Bernstein, Solti, Abravanel, and Haitink would perform only that movement, which, by the way, is a powerful musical statement fully capable making a powerful musical statement all by itself over its 20+ minutes. Since then, several composers have taken it upon themselves to “complete” the symphony, expanding upon the sketches that Mahler left behind. I have over the years listened to several of these versions and have come to two conclusions. First, more often than not, I am content to listen to the first movement Adagio on its own, the movement that was completed by Mahler himself and is left by and large largely untouched throughout the various performing editions of the work by various composers and conductors. Second, of the various versions out there, my preferred version is the one employed on this recording, that by the late Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke (1919-1976). As the liner notes point put, “Cooke repeatedly insisted that his meticulously produced edition (used for the present recording) was not a ‘completion’ of the symphony (something which only Mahler would ever have been able to accomplish), but rather a functional presentation of the materials as Mahler left them, rendered performable in the full knowledge that Mahler would likely have made many revisions to the score on the way to its ultimate completion.”

In the past, I have enjoyed some fine recordings of Cooke’s completion, including an older and now largely forgotten but nonetheless excellent version by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eliahu Inbal conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and more recently, Thomas Dausgaard with the Seattle Symphony. And now we have this fine new version by the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of Osmo Vänskä, whose previous BIS recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 was highly regarded in Classical Candor by both 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.

My guess would be that most readers of this blog are unfamiliar with the music of Canadian compost Christopher Tyler Nickel (b. 1978). I will readily confess that I had never heard of neither composer Nickel, conductor Mitchell, nor the Northwest Sinfonia before reading the press release for this recording. From the booklet included with the CD we learn that Nickel has composed not just for the concert hall, but also for film and television (who knows, we may well have previously heard some of his music without even realizing it…). Mitchell has conducted orchestras throughout the world and is a frequent guest conductor at orchestras throughout Canada as well as being an active promoter of music education. The Northwest Sinfonia is a recording orchestra, a kind of “all-star” ensemble (along the lines of the English Sinfonia, which has made some fine recordings of recently reviewed in Classical Candor 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.

Having now listened to the Nickel Symphony No. 2 numerous times and having come to enjoy and appreciate it more and more with each listening, I hope I can persuade at least some of our good readers to likewise make their acquaintance with these talented folks though this compelling recording of an intensely focused and powerful 53-minute work. A line on the back cover of the CD case sums up the symphony as “a “vast, deep, emotionally demanding work.” and I would have to say that I pretty much agree with that assessment. In many ways I find it reminiscent of some of the brooding movements of Shostakovich, such as the opening movements of his Symphonies Nos. 8 and 10. That is not so much to say that Nickel sounds musically like some kind of clone of the Russian master, but rather that this work brings the listener into that same kind of, yes, vast and deeply involving emotional soundworld. With a total time a mere one second shy of 53 minutes, that single movement is marked “Grave - Andante - Grave - Mysterioso - Fatalistically - Grave.  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.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa