Endnotes, October 2022
In this edition: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony from the Czech Philharmonic, Elgar, choral music from Severnside, reviewed by Stuart Millson
Sometimes described as a “journey from darkness to brilliant light”, the Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler (1901-02) is one of the composer’s most closely-argued works. A portentous, but nervous trumpet fanfare opens the first movement, leading the listener into an expansive orchestral landscape, yet along clear, direct lines throughout. No significant diversions, no meandering, just taut – sometimes perilous, sometimes radiant – spans of writing that carry you to a glorious, perhaps Brucknerian as much as Mahlerian, finale.
In this new CD from the Pentatone label, the Czech Philharmonic under Mahler expert Semyon Bychkov, provide a remarkable view of the “Middle-European” orchestral sound: a sharp, rasping edge to trumpets and brass, and a precise sound to strings, never the deep richness to be found in some orchestras, but nevertheless with a brightness and depth that is needed for the moods of Mahler. For those who know their Mahler recordings, the new CD puts one immediately in mind of a Deutsche Grammophon version of some considerable vintage; the reading by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the great Rafael Kubelik (which can still be obtained via the following catalogue number, 429 519-2). Kubelik’s Bavarians give, what to this reviewer, is the near-definitive interpretation of the Fifth – at least in terms of tempo and “outlook”, not to mention the thrilling playing of Munich’s and southern Germany’s outstanding radio orchestra. Now, we have a perfect match, in the form of Bychkov’s realisation of the score – where the Czech Philharmonic achieves a truly satisfying blend of forward-motion, but never sacrificing Mahler’s shattering ability to dwell on profound emotions.
The enormous funeral march that is the first movement keeps its dignity, but does not stall or wallow. The next movement is one of supreme agitation, and early violence, yet Bychkov brilliantly conjures at the end glimpses of radiance and heaven; keeping a thrilling tension to the orchestral sound. The Austrian country-dance atmosphere of the landler-dominated scherzo has a pleasing sense of sunshine gleaming through trees and over Alpine peaks (Mahler composed the Fifth during productive summer months); and the famous Adagietto (Editorial note: supposedly a portrait of Alma Mahler) floats and sighs through moonlit glades and dreams. The last movement – an affirmation of the composer’s ability to build musical power, through sequences that all seem to be climaxes of sound in their own right – take us to the overwhelming final minutes; the Czech Philharmonic sound captured in all its volume and detail. The “inner sounds” of the score – the sinews and strains, the details of woodwind, the hues of the immense string ensemble – this is Mahler’s Fifth at its finest.
In complete contrast, on the ever-questing Somm label, comes choral music from Elgar’s beloved world of Worcestershire and the Severn. Entitled ‘The Reeds by Severnside” (Elgar, as a boy, could often be found by the river, trying to translate into music the sound of the reeds), Somm has assembled a rare sequence of church music by a composer who always remembered his roots – as a local organist, a wanderer, walker and bicycle-rider through the lanes of his home county. Performed by the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, under William Vann (with Joshua Ryan, organ), the new CD offers such gems as the Angelus, O hearken Thou (Op. 64), the Queen Alexandra Memorial Ode. The better-known, Give unto the Lord, (Op. 74) – Elgar at his most typically Victorian, ‘Sunday best’ and earnest – also appears, but most eye- or ear-catching is a Credo on themes from Beethoven’s symphonies; choral variations on passages from the Eroica and the Fifth, in which the music of Bonn’s great master manages to sound completely English. A strange feeling, and a fine recording, William Vann keeping a sense of Elgar’s provincial church tradition: noble, yet intimate – a thought that after the recital, one could emerge from listening or worship into the fresh English air.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Recording details: Mahler, Symphony No. 5, Czech Philharmonic/Bychkov, Pentatone – PTC5187021.
The Reeds by Severnside, choral works by Elgar, Somm label, SOMMCD278.