Jansons’ Interesting Mahler Second

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in c min., “Resurrection” / Anja Harteros, sop; Bernarda Fink, mez; Bavarian Radio Chorus & Symphony Orch.; Mariss Jansons, cond / BR Klassik 900167

Having been blown away by Jansons’ live recording of the Schubert Ninth, I was curious to hear how he did in the Mahler Second, one of my favorite of his symphonies and, happily, one that has fared extremely well on records. My own personal favorites, and the ones I turn to most often, are the 1948 live performance by Bruno Walter, the 1980 live performance by Zubin Mehta, and Michael Gielen’s studio recording, but the 1962 version by Otto Klemperer is extremely good as well. (I’ve yet to hear the famous but elusive 1935 recording by Eugene Ormandy and the Minneapolis Symphony, a recording sadly unavailable in the United States.)

Another reason I wanted to hear this recording was that Jansons has two very fine vocal soloists, almost a rarity nowadays: the great German soprano Anja Harteros, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera for two or three seasons but wasn’t offered anything beyond that, so she left, and Bernarda Fink, a mezzo primarily known for 18th-century repertoire (Handel, Haydn and Mozart). Fink is sometimes “the girl with the curl,” but in this performance her voice is solid and quite lovely.

For me, the first test of any Mahler Second is the very opening of the first movement, and here Jansons gives us the requisite “edge” it needs. Once he moves into the opening theme, he turns a bit more lyrical, but when the secondary theme enters he again digs in and rises to a good, smashing fortissimo. He then pulls back on the tempo to produce a smooth, almost gliding reading of the lyric theme in E major, with an extra rubato touch in the very middle of the phrase. Indeed, it is this constant yin-yang, push forward and pull back, that characterizes his reading. I find it fascinating and valid for the most part; in a sense, it reminds me of the 1948 Walter performance in much better sound. His orchestral profile tends to favor the brass and winds over the strings (and by brass I also mean the tubas and trombones, not just the trumpets), almost like a cross between Wagner and Berlioz. This, too, I found interesting. As I’ve said many times, Mahler is a rarity among major composers in that his music can take a fairly wide range of musical styles in performance, from straightforward (and no one was more straightforward in this symphony than Klemperer) to somewhat wayward tempi (like Klaus Tennstedt’s live performance with the London Symphony), in part because Mahler’s music was chiaroscuro to the nth degree, a constant contrast of light and darkness, elegance and drama. To a certain extent, this Mahler Second struck me as similar in approach to James Levine’s superb studio recording of the Mahler Fourth, a constant push-pull of the music that changes in mood and color on a dime. Towards the end of the first movement (18:50), Jansons slows down the tempo in an interesting way, bringing out a sort of “death march” feel to the music that I can’t recall hearing in anyone else’s music.

In the second movement, Jansons uses a sort of rhetorical phrasing in the initial theme that works very well, and once again he ups the tempo in the darker, more dramatic minor-key version of the theme in the middle. He continues this sort of cat-and-mouse game in the scherzo, adding wonderful little touches that I’ve never heard before, yet does not do so in a way that says, “Look at me, aren’t I clever?” Everything he does makes musical sense.

One of the few things I did not care for was in the fifth movement where, after the dramatic opening, Jansons dropped the tempo to such a slow pace that momentum seemed to be lost. I understand what he was trying to do, but without a slight forward nudge of the tempo, it tends to drag that section of the symphony.

Clearly, this is a unique interpretation of this symphony. I was in sympathy with most but not all of Jansons’ changes of detail, but it is surely worth a listen. The one thing this performance does not have, and this may be artistic choice rather than accident, is a feeling of warmth. By applying a Berlioz-like sound profile to the orchestra, Jansons has stripped the music of any sort of comfortable sound cushion for the listener to use as a sort of pillow.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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