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Sunday, July 10, 2011

CD Review: Zinman's Zurich Zauberkunst

Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1-10. Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich cond. David Zinman
(15 SACDs + 1 DVD, RCA/Sony Classical, 2007-2010)
The cover of the new Mahler box. Painting by Augustin Giocometti.
This boxed set collects David Zinman's brisk, no-nonsense recordings of Mahler's ten symphonies (including the Clinton A. Carpenter completion of the Tenth, but no Das Lied von der Erde.) The Swiss forces are not as showy a "name" as the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonics or the American "big five." But on these recordings, they play Mahler with freshness, enthusiasm and love for this composer's particular genius. They are led by the American Mr. Zinman, who chooses brisk, but not rushed tempos, with some exceptions.

Throughout these performances, (recorded in the Tonhalle from 2007 to 2010) Mr. Zinman shows great attention to the details and subtleties of these scores, preferring the complex textures of Mahler's wind writing to the big blasts of brass bombast. The opening bloc of Wunderhorn symphonies (Nos. 1-4) are solidly performed, with rich brass playing and energetic strings and winds. Mr. Zinman has a firm grasp of Mahler's treacherous rhythms, making the sudden celebratory dance in the middle of the Symphony No. 1 Marcia funebre lurch to playful life. The "Blumine" movement (excised from Mahler's First symphony right before the work's premiere) is included as an appendix.
David Zinman. Photo by Priska Ketterer.
Mr. Zinman tackles the largest movements of the Second (the final "Resurrection") and the Third ("Pan Awakes") with fearless command, unveiling great structures from Mahler's complex musical architecture. "Pan Awakes" is especially compelling. The famous (and under some conductors, interminable) extended repeat in the latter movement is played with gusto, as if the Swiss brass can't resist a second chance to blast through Mahler's summery march. But after all this bombast, the Fourth is a bit of a let-down. The performance has the right funereal atmosphere, but lacks Mahler's grim humor.

The three "middle" symphonies (Nos. 5, 6, and 7) benefit from the wide, detailed dynamic range. Mr. Zinman chooses interesting, not always predictable spots to slow the pace, producing new effects without distorting the original works. The Fifth journeys from the brassy funeral march to its triumphant close, with a brief, intimate stop at the Adagietto. The Sixth (with its Adagio placed in the second position) simply kicks ass, starting with the heavy metal stomp of the low strings in the opening movement and the contrasting second theme. The whole climaxes in the crushing hammer-blows of the grim 30-minute finale.

Mr. Zinman also solves the mysterious Seventh, bringing out new details in this strange nocturnal journey. The central three movements (two Nachtmusiks bookending the grim Schattenhaft are played in a continuous flow. The whole ends in a brassy blaze of light. For once, this finale does not sound like a cheap knockoff of Meistersinger! That blaze of light continues into the problematic Eighth, with its titanic forces for voice, chorus and orchestra. The textures of "Veni, Creator Spiritus" are stretched to their absolute limit. The "Faust" climax is also slow, with an ardent performance from tenor Anthony Dean Griffey to the fore. The brass give all their worth.

One of the joys of this set is the wrenching Ninth, a symphony that can go disastrously wrong on record. The opening, faltering heartbeat is perfectly played, with muted, jarring brass. The Rondo-Burleske
whirls and capers. The final fade-out leaves the listener shattered. Mr. Zinman also does well by the (completed) Tenth, making the symphony more than just a Mahlerian afterthought. After a tremendous reading of the opening movement, he makes an intelligent argument for Mr. Carpenter's completion of the latter four movements. Those familiar with the "standard" Deryck Cooke completion may find this a more satisfying effort to solve this unfinished work.

Footage of David Zinman rehearsing the Mahler Sixth, from Going Against Fate.

This is a lavish box, spreading the works across 15 Super Audio CDs. They are packaged in individual slip-cases that replicate the CD covers, showcasing art-works that are currently in the collection of the Kunsthaus Zurich. It also includes a fascinating documentary, Going Against Fate, that chronicles the sessions for the Sixth Symphony. The film delves into the complexities of playing in a modern state-sponsored orchestra, from the tuba player's need for brass oil to a bassoonist demonstrating the proper way to wrap and blow a double reed. For this writer, the highlight was hearing Mr. Zinman offer a verse of "Alma", the satiric lied about Mahler's widow, written by Tom Lehrer. It was a wonderfully irreverent moment in the midst of a worthy recording project.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.