MAHLER Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” • Paavo Järvi, cond; Natalie Dessay (sop); Alice Coote (mez); Orfeón Donostiarra; Frankfurt RSO • VIRGIN 50999 694586 0 6 (2 CDs: 85:11 Text and Translation) Live: Frankfurt 5/6-8/2009
Paavo Järvi’s Mahler Movements CD (also on Virgin) was reviewed by Jens F. Laurson in FanfareRead more 33:4; he was pleased with the conductor’s performances of Blumine and Totenfeier. The latter is significant, since Järvi has now recorded the complete Second Symphony. I was looking forward to hearing this recording, since I’d had a tantalizing sample: the Virgin Web site includes a YouTube promo piece, and the 15-minute spot features musical excerpts as well as interviews with the artists. This video can be accessed from the OpenDisc feature on disc 1. Incidentally, if this is indeed a live recording—there is no such indication on the package or in the notes, though the video was shot during a concert—the audience is remarkably unobtrusive.
There is a hesitation in the ascending phrase in the cellos and basses in the opening of the first movement that is reminiscent of Rattle, though not as pronounced. This is a highly dramatic reading: The slow, dreamy character of the pastoral subject in the major mode enhances the ethereal beauty of the melody, capturing the yearning at its heart and providing stark contrast with the austere first theme. The coda is very deliberate and rather creepy until the headlong “plunge” motive ends the movement. All of this is communicated through playing of the utmost clarity and sensitivity, while Järvi’s attention to dynamics heightens the drama.
The graceful Ländler is elegant and lilting in its flowing tempo, though the sound isn’t overly lush; ever mindful of how often in the beginning Mahler calls for pianississimo in the strings, Järvi’s players barely register above a whisper. There is an increasing urgency in the minor-mode sections made all the more forceful by the understated quality of the main theme—the pizzicato section is again barely audible (that’s not a criticism). The winds come to the foreground in the Scherzo, while the strings are once again discreet; the sound production complements Järvi’s vision, which highlights the dry humor as well as the warmth (of the Trio) and even a bit of angst in the foreshadowing of the finale.
Having been impressed by Alice Coote’s “Urlicht” included in the Complete Works box on EMI (reviewed elsewhere), I was not disappointed here. Järvi adopts a very restrained tempo, but Coote copes easily with the pace, producing a solo of pure tone and convincing sincerity. The harp is quite audible throughout the orchestral eruption that opens the finale—tribute to the remarkable sound production (and Järvi doesn’t stint on the fireworks, either—his “opening of the graves” episode is quite an earful). The offstage effects are properly distanced as the “voice crying in the wilderness” is heard, and later for the “Great Call” and the offstage band. Järvi builds the movement through its successive episodes into the final majestic “Aufersteh’n” in masterly fashion. Though expansive at over 35 minutes, the flexibility of tempo and Järvi’s understanding of the dramatic schema mitigate any possibility of drag.
The intonation of the chorus’s hushed entrance is notably clear, and one marvels once again at the genius of Mahler’s choral opening (as well as the professionalism of the Orfeón Donostiarra). Natalie Dessay’s soprano is suitably lighter in tone than Coote’s mezzo, giving their duets excellent contrast. The sound is notably clear and detailed with deep, resonant bass. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded a complete set of the Mahler symphonies with Eliahu Inbal for Denon back in the 80s (it’s now available on Brilliant); its Mahler credentials are thus well established.
The discography for the Second is among the richest of Mahler’s symphonies, and both of his most famous protégés recorded the work in stereo. My own preference is for the 1962 Klemperer on EMI; rough and ready, it is one of the most dramatic (and swiftest) on disc. Among older recordings, I think the Rattle holds up remarkably well. Järvi forges his own path, one that is free of gratuitous sentimental gestures and high on clarity of line. At two-for-one pricing, this recording is both a bargain and a solid investment. I recommend it enthusiastically.