MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D "Titan." Songs of a Wayfarer
Christopher Maltman, baritone; Philharmonia Orch/Benjamin Zander, cond.
TELARC CD 80628 (2 CDS) TT: 2:27:38
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BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73. Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 3, 10, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21.
London Philharmonic Orch/Marin Alsop, cond.
NAXOS 8.557429 (B) (DDD) TT: 65:06
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REZNICEK: Symphony No. 2 in B flat "Ironic." Symphony No. 5 "Dance Symphony."
Berner Symphony Orch/Frank Beermann, cond.
cpo 777 056 (F) (DDD) TT: 66:08
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BEETHOVEN: Incidental Music for Goethe's Egmont, Op. 84. Incidental Music for Katzbue's The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113.
Mechthild Gessendorf, soprano; Roger Andrews, baritone; New York Choral Artists; London Symphony Orch/Orchestra of St. Luke's/Dennis Russell Davies, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 31555 (F) (DDD) TT: 74:10
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Despite the classical discbiz’s deforestation of catalogs here and abroad, a few chestnuts still turn up in new versions along with medium-or-budget priced repackagings, remastered treasures (ostensibly at least) from the past, and even novelties, although these are usually to be found on full-price (and sometimes pricey) import labels. Two chestnuts among recent releases are another installment from Telarc in Benjamin Zander’s ongoing Mahler cycle (with the free second disc an illustrated lecture by the Brit-born but longtime Boston conductor), and the Second Symphony plus 10 Hungarian Dances in Naxos’ latterday series of orchestral Brahms with Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic. The repackaging by EMI of Beethoven’s complete incidental music for Egmont and The Ruins of Athens – second-drawer Ludwig but still beguiling – was originally recorded in 1989 by Dennis Russell Davies with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, two vocal soloists, and Joseph Hummerfelt’s Choral Arts in the Manhattan Center. It is altogether commendable with two caveats: The program book prints Richard Freed’s annotations and texts for the songs and choruses in tiny, red-papaya type on a pumpkin-colored background, while perhaps the same two “redesigners” added “London Symphony Orchestra” right above Davies’ name on the contents page. Otherwise, the credits (in dying-grass green on that same pumpkin-colored background) seem not to list any re-recording of what are admirably sonorous originals, spiritedly conducted, played and sung. Good bargain. The novelty is cpo’s coupling of the Second and Fifth Symphonies by Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945), the same who wrote the enduring Donna Diana Overture – but more of these later in some detail.

Zander’s Mahler, which commences with Songs of a Wayfarer quoted in the symphony, is very much in the dramatic-dynamic mold of earlier releases in what promises to be another non-essential set of the composer’s completed nine (with perhaps one of the burgeoning reconstructions to date of No. 10). The Philharmonia Orchestra plays stalwartly, with great power as well as richness of tone for Zander, while the recording of the Symphony in London’s Watford Colleseum [sic] was probably intended for DVD release down the line – the spread borders on excessive. The four Wayfarer Songs were the product of Abbey Road’s Studio One, made a day before the Symphony last July, and more intimate acoustically. But they depend upon one’s liking or disliking baritone Christopher Maltman’s vibrato under pressure and his tendency to croon during soft passages, creating a kinsman of the wimpy protagonist in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. As for the featured work, Zander’s reading brims with passionate commitment yet fails at the same time to reveal a riveting musical personality in charge. Certanly it is better than a regiment of others, many of them blessedly gone, if not one’s Mahler First of choice, especially at full price (forget the lecture – if listened to at all, it tends to reek of the classroom).

Let me dispatch Alsop’s Brahms without going into Zanderesque detail. The brass blend at the very start of No. 2 is impressive, but thereafter Alsop keeps everything moving but invariably at the expense of a Viennese style that includes Luftpausen and the summer charm that suffuses this particular work. Remembering some Baltimore-player putdowns of her Brahms’ Third Symphony last season, one can understand their caution about her long-term viability as a music director. The Dances are the three that Brahms himself orchestrated (1,3 and 10), and Dvorák’s orchestral transformations of 17-21, all originally for piano four-hands. Tim Handley produced these eight Dances in the same Watford venue that Telarc used for Zander’s Mahler, but without the echo, and used London’s Blackheath Concert Hall for the Symphony. Both sites produced a consistently vivid sound. The disc is not a keepsake, but for $7 and fancy packaging by Naxos’ standards, neophytes may want to invest?

The Reznicek disc is a genuine novelty by a composer born the same year as Mahler, although he wrote only five symphonies – I’d call them multi-movement tone poems but not, however, in denigration. However, there were operas, too, etc. And course Donna Diana. Both symphonies are expertly variegated in content, melodic without being quite hummably tuneful, stylistically of their time and place, with surprises that mainly delight – especially a feather-soft Scherzo in the Second (“Ironic”) Symphony, and all four movements in the Fifth “Dance” Symphony. They bear up sturdily under repeated hearings, and are excellently played by the Bern (Switzerland) Symphony Orchestra under the upcoming German conductor, Frank Beermann. The recording by Gerald Hanefeld in the Kultur Casino at Bern does justice to the performers as well as the composer. For those who want a respite from Mahler Firsts and Brahms Seconds – and all those other chestnuts in and out of the fire – Reznicek is affectionately recommended.

R.D. (October 2005)