mon 22/04/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Mahler, Joby Talbot, American Mavericks | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Mahler, Joby Talbot, American Mavericks

Classical CDs Weekly: Mahler, Joby Talbot, American Mavericks

An unorthodox Mahler cycle, a belter of a ballet score and some extraordinary sounds from San Francisco

Michael Tilson Thomas

Mahler: Symphonies 1-9 London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev (LSO Live)

Buying a set of Mahler symphonies used to mean blowing one’s annual record budget in one swoop. You can now buy cycles by the likes of Bernstein and Tennstedt for less than £30, and this economically priced LSO Live box collects Valery Gergiev’s live recordings. All were taped in the Barbican apart from the 8th, performed in St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s unreasonable to expect any one conductor to get all these pieces right. And, when Gergiev does really hit the mark, these performances contain sensational moments. I’m thinking of Symphonies 5-7, where the combination of pin sharp rhythms and brassy exuberance make for compelling listening.  This Sixth sounds punchy and aggressive, far less maudlin than usual. Mahler is left down but not out at the close, ready to pick himself up and dust himself down before the phantasmagorical Seventh’s more optimistic narrative. Gergiev’s last movement is uplifting and brazen; he clearly has no doubts about its structural integrity. An upbeat, rousing Eighth convinces too, the resonant acoustic brilliantly controlled by producer James Mallinson.

Mahler’s earlier symphonies don’t always respond well to the Gergiev approach; No 1 just doesn’t possess enough charm. Having the entire bass section play the third movement’s lugubrious Frère Jacques theme just feels wrong. And in those moments of stillness which lie at the heart of the outer movements, you wish that Gergiev would linger a little more. Mahler’s music is often more affecting when it’s a little fuzzy around the edges – here, everything’s just too sharply defined and brightly lit. The same issues also afflict the Fourth Symphony, which doesn’t exude enough wonder. Gergiev’s Resurrection is redeemed by an incisive, dramatic finale, and his Third Symphony works well – lustrous brass in the opening movement and just enough impish fun in the two scherzi. This Ninth left me unmoved - a little too glitzy and controlled. Beautiful in places, but there’s something missing – a colleague reflected that “it just doesn’t sound like Mahler.” But the curious should investigate – the positives outweigh the negatives and the orchestral playing never disappoints.

Joby Talbot: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Fool’s Paradise Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Austin (Signum)

Opening with, in the composer Joby Talbot’s words, “a strange, bitonal tick-tock”, this suite drawn from the score to the Royal Ballet’s first full-length ballet for 20 years is a blast. This is real music – witty, unpretentious and clever, and the extracts chosen on this disc never outstay their welcome. Themes associated with specific characters are invariably memorable and intelligently developed. The suite’s opening is entrancing – a hazy dreamscape, overlaid with glittering percussion. Everything is beautifully judged – the Cheshire Cat’s music is strangely undefinable and teeters on the edge of invisibility, the purring woodwinds giving the game away. The Mad Hatter’s tea party’s muted trumpets suggest a music-hall turn. The ballet’s apotheosis briefly implies that we’re going to get something grandiose along the lines of Daphnis and Chloe, before Talbot wraps things up sweetly and calmly.

The coupling, Fool’s Paradise was first performed in 2007. Scored for strings and piano, it’s a more restrained affair, though no less attractive. Derived from a piano trio written to accompany a silent film about a ballerina in peril, Talbot’s music is melancholy and affecting – the concertante piano part beautifully delivered by the composer. Both scores are given inspired performances – conductor Christopher Austin helped Talbot finish the orchestrations for Alice and his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra sound as if they’re having a ball. All given spectacular sonics, in a recording made in London’s Henry Wood Hall.

American Mavericks – Music by Cowell, Harrison and Varèse San Franscisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media)

With an album as scarily titled as this, containing pieces you’ve (probably) never heard, often with forbidding titles, you need a persuasive guide. Michael Tilson Thomas is your man – this is a superb disc, packed with stuff you’ll want to listen to repeatedly. Tilson Thomas recorded music by Henry Cowell back in the 1970s and opens this collection with Cowell’s Synchrony, composed in 1930 as a dance piece for Martha Graham – who failed to finish the choreography. You can’t blame her – I can’t imagine anyone dancing to the exotically coloured tone clusters which dominate the music’s slower sections, though things become far more interesting rhythmically as the piece develops. Cowell’s Piano Concerto dates from the same year and is played here by the wonderful Jeremy Denk. Who’s also an expert in demystifying the unknown; the dissonant angularity of Cowell’s chromium-plated music is rendered with romanticism and flamboyance. You can even hear traces of Gershwin beneath the snarling exterior.

When Lou Harrison received separate commissions for organ and percussion ensemble, he fused the two into his Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra. The complexity is rhythmic rather than harmonic; Harrison’s fondness for Javenese gamelan powers everything.  Harrison’s pounding, diatonic organ part blasts away under a mass of percussion, coming to a sudden, dramatic halt. It's phenomenal. As is this rendition of Varèse’s Amériques, written for colossal orchestral forces and heard here in a recording which can do the dynamic range full justice. Wait until your neighbours are out and listen to this at full volume. Tilson Thomas makes the most of the spookier, quiet interludes, and when these players are operating at full pelt you can discern every strand. 

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