STRAUSS: Don Quixote, Op. 35. TCHAIKOVSKY: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 58.
Mack Harell, cellist; David Greenlees, viola; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz, cond.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 [final edition]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
RLPO CLASSICO CD 1503 [F] [DDD] TT: 51:07

Gerard Schwarz has been recording music by Richard Strauss for at least 17 years, going back (as far as I’ve been able to trace) to the Divertimento after Couperin with the New York Chamber Symphony (r.i.p.) in September 1986. With that same orchestra he made the first complete version of Le bourgeois Gentilhomme two years later for Pro Arte (r.i.p.), and with the Seattle Symphony a formidable repertory for Delos, although oddly never Strauss’ two Dons – Juan and Quixote. Until he became music director of the Royal Liverpool PO two years ago this month, he had never conducted Alpensinfonie, but made amends straightaway in his first RLPO recording published by the orchestra itself (RLCD 1401), which the Royal Philharmonic had started doing in the ‘90s (if even earlier a correction will be welcomed), and as the London Symphony has been doing since Colin Davis returned from Munich as their music director.

Schwarz once said privately that he’d never conduct the “Alpine,” and when finally he did, it proved to be one of the fastest ever—quick going up the mountain, slower and a lot more poetic coming down. A year later he turned to Don Quixote, with Lynn Harrell as cello soloist in as rare a form as I’ve heard him in years, both technically and interpertatively. With the single caveat (from a stateside standpoint) of the RLPO’s solo oboe who plays fractionally above collegial pitch in louder passages without the tonal beauty the greatest French and American orchestral players have accustomed us colonials to hear (Marcel Tabuteau and later John de Lancie in Philadelphia, Ray Still incomparably in Chicago). But say for Liverpool oboe’s, who seems to be a prime mover behind the scenes, he doesn’t have the slow wobble that Leon Goossens bequeated to followers in Albion—what prompted Sir Thomas Beecham to say in prewar-2 days at the beginning of a London Phil rehearsal, “There you are, ladies and gentlemen, take your choice.”

Otherwise, this Merseyside reading is superb. The wealth of detail Schwarz allows us to hear without dawdling alongside the road, and the nobility as well as humor (where appropriate) put it for me in the same category as a 1964 Amsterdam broadcast by George Szell with Pierre Fournier as soloist that I had the privilege of annotating for Music & Arts. Altogether finer, that is, than a commercial version by the same team in Cleveland for CBS/Sony. Amsterdam brought out a poet in Szell heard in too few of his recordings elsewhere, and having said that, I mean the highest praise for Schwarz and Harrell along with the RLPO’s principal violist, David Greenlees and concertmaster Malcolm Stewart. The engineering is beautifully consistent in “live” sessions between October 1-6, 2001. For bonuses, there are program notes by Michael Kennedy and John Warrack, plus an altogether elegant performance of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations (albeit the corrupted Wildhagen version commonly used; how much kinder had they played Tchaikovsky’s original). Arkiv’s price is $14, and they ship overnight if the website is listed in stock.

The Mahler is Schwarz’s first on discs and, like his Alpine, without the longeurs that have attached over decades of recordings, too many in this case to count. The RPLO, however, has done Nos. 1 and 5 in the past for EMI Eminence with Sir Charles Mackerras (out of print) and No. 9 with Schwarz’s predecessor, Libor Pesek, for Virgin. At 51:07 this new one may seem brisk until one checks back and finds that it was Bruno Walter’s timing before he became a very old man! Schwarz has been conducting a Mahler symphony every season in Seattle (Nos. 8 and a completion of No. 10 excepted); he knows the Viennese manner instinctively as well as hereditarily (see his program note in the presentation book, as well as masterful Malcolm Mac Donald’s notes on Mahler and the music itself). The recording dates were Oct 10-13, 2002, and March 23 of this year, wherein lies a bigger caveat that Jonathan Small’s oboe solos.

The first three movements are boldly recorded with appropriate hall ambience before a silent, dare one say rapt?, audience. But the sonic perspective changes with the first outburst in the finale; microphones have pulled back, as it were, and even with a sizeable boost in volume the sound never matches the impact of the first three movements. The performance itself does, with the double bonus—as in the Strauss/Tchaikovsky discs—of the first and second violins divided, allowing Mahler to be heard as he intended. This is the first of a complete Mahler cycle on CDs from Liverpool, a project Schwarz expects to complete in 2007. He has a better orchestra there than his longtime home crew in Seattle, the strings outstandingly so, and since Delos has become a kind of vanity label from which few recordings can be expected except those Dallas pays for, Seattle on Delos is a closed book except for selective reissues by Naxos. If only, though, Schwarz could smuggle engineer John Eargle into RLPO Hall and let him do what he did inimitably in Seattle. And had added Don Juan: 51'07" means nearly half an unused hour.

R.D. (September 2003)