OPERA NEWS - Symphony No. 3, Symphony No. 4
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MAHLER: Symphony No. 3, Symphony No. 4

spacer Meier, Kühmeier; Frankfurt Radio Symphony ORchestra, MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig, Järvi. Unitel Classica 719108, 165 mins., subtitled

Recordings Mahler Jarvi Cover 815

Interpretations of Mahler’s music have reached a third stage. In the first, we had the halting discovery of the repertoire, with conductors who aspired to be Bernstein; in the second, we had the complete mastery of these once intractable pieces, with platinum, turn-on-a-dime orchestras led by conductors inspired by Karajan or Sinpoli. 

Paavo Järvi’s performances of Mahler (along with some spectacular versions of Mahler’s Ninth, led by Alan Gilbert) represent a new phase. These interpretations explore the starkest contrasts and extremes, with beautifully and fleetly coursing violins set against the most bizarre of musical sounds where Mahler asks for “blaring” or “coarse.” Järvi doesn’t telegraph every unexpected change of harmony with a lift or a breath, since Mahler knew how to write these things if he wanted them. Four piccolos playing in unison are meant to be shrill, and Järvi has no urge to make the passage sound polished. Odd tone colors (playing with the wood of the bow or on the bridge of the violin) are created all-out, as are desynchronized multiple tempos. 

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra bucks today’s trend of homogenized woodwind tone — particularly an oboist of distinctive and beautiful coloring. The tricky, unique passage in the Third Symphony for one flute, one oboe and one clarinet playing in unison makes a suitably otherworldly effect. Thus the warmer, more tonal moments are all the more effective. In particular, the third movement of the Fourth Symphony is a sadder-but-wiser moment akin to the canon quartet in Beethoven’s Fidelio, and the chiming bell tones of the woodwinds in the first movement of the Third Symphony are reminiscent of Wagner’s pilgrims.

Genia Kühmeier’s interpretation of the fourth movement of the Fourth Symphony continues the trajectory that Järvi set out in the first three. She begins with a childlike quality, though she is never cloying, and she still sings in a woman’s voice. But she deliberately loses individuality and youthfulness for the final stanza, as she is subsumed into the unearthly scene. In the Third Symphony, Waltraud Meier is a deeply human soloist, not an oracular one. Again, this is a soloist who sees her solo movement as merely a part of Järvi’s larger conception. He has moved from music of fresh and vigorous health through the many changes of tempo in the second movement (though without a hint of the aura of an obsequious waiter) to a stunning final movement, with his slowest tempos reserved only for this final resting point. 

But do we need video for this? Järvi has prepared these performances brilliantly, yet there’s nothing gained from seeing his inscrutable face. (He looks like the non-evil twin of Vladimir Putin.) There’s an additional layer to Meier’s performance with the visuals — her demeanor is comforting in a way the words are not. But the camera’s wanderings entirely spoil the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony, gliding over every player like a surveillance drone. And Järvi’s final movement of the Third, the most persuasively shaped I’ve ever heard, is spoiled near the end by an incongruously speedy tracking shot. spacer

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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