New Mahler 2 from 1980

by Glenn on November 13, 2014

A little bit of insomnia so I wrapped myself in a down blanket (Portland has some serious “hey, ho, the wind and the rain” going on this morning) and sat down at the computer to write. While I wrote I thought I would test drive a recent acquisition of Mahler’s Second Symphony featuring Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the Leningrad State Academic Kirov Opera and Ballet Theatre. The name of the orchestra seems a little something, but this is a recording from 1980, which is pre-Reagan. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the U.S.S.R. was nearly a decade away.

Cover art of Mahler's 2nd Symphony featuring Yuri Temirkanov with the Symphony ORchestra of the Lengingrad State Academic Kirov Opera and Ballet Theatre

I enjoyed listening to what I am going to call a Russian take on a Bohemian/Jewish/Austrian composer’s Resurrection-themed music, but it’s neither a satisfying performance or recording. Ultimately it feels like a severe and stern unfolding of the music rather than a passionate declaration.

From the beginning, the orchestra plays well. The opening features sharply and clearly articulated playing from the strings. The wind instruments play with a straighter tone than I am used to, which was interesting to experience. The recording itself is rather dry and boxed. This makes the playing of the orchestra both more impressive (clean and precise) for the most part, but exposes some minor intonation problems from time to time. Near the end of the first movement there is an opportunity for the strings to add some schmultz in the portamento section, but they play it fairly straight. The end of the first movement is fast. Ridiculously fast? With everything so reserved, this seemed strange.

In the second movement, the strings are pretty but it’s clear there is a different aesthetic at work than trying to make allusions to the pastorale.

The third movement highlights precise, if mechanical/metronomical playing. The brass fanfare lacks any real exhuberance. It’s as though someone said, “Okay, we’re playing Mahler, but let’s not get carried away.” This movement has moments that should sound utterly sarcastic. They don’t here.

The worst thing about this recording is the choice of location for a break between two CDs. The preferable location is after the long first movement. Mahler’s own instructions are for there to be a five-minute break at that point—perfect place to exchange CDs. Less desirable, but still possible is after the 2nd movement. The break on this recording is between the 3rd and 4th movements. What’s supposed to happen is that the third movement ends and then the vocal soloist begins the next movement ½ step higher. It’s a really cool transition, but it’s muddled here as you scramble to find the next disc. This was unfortunate.

And I guess from this point forward I failed to stay engaged. Of the two soloists, the mezzo-soprano is more palatable. Our soprano soloist in the final movement doesn’t try for blend or nuance. It’s full-throated yet not heart felt. I didn’t believe her, a critical problem for a composition about belief.