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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 29, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 31
Mahler bliss in a compact disc
Arts & Entertainment
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Mahler bliss in a compact disc

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

MAHLER'S
TENTH SYMPHONY
SEATTLE SYMPHONY
CD


Not since Joni Mitchell's first LP have I been so taken over by a musical release as by this new CD of the Seattle Symphony in Mahler's tenth symphony conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Unlike most dreaded 'ear worms' ('Yes, Jesus loves me&') I love having this one going around in my head. The rich melodies of the first movement especially recur at various moments of my day, making my thoughts soar with the sweep of those long, enveloping phrases.

When as a child I first heard Mahler, it sounded to me like music from outer space - something super-modern, floating and freeing. I don't know which symphony KUOW-FM was sending out of that big speaker of my neighbor's new-fangled FM radio, but I thrilled that this new medium could so transport me. Nowadays, it takes extraordinary performances to do that. And the recording must supply sound that clearly defines what each instrument or group of instruments is doing.

This new CD from live Seattle Symphony performances fills those requirements in spades. Melinda Bargreen, Seattle Times critic, remarked, 'It was impossible to be in the house and not realize that something rare and significant had taken place.' I am most grateful that so much of that essence was captured so well by the SSO engineer, Dmitriy Lipay. Having survived through most of my adult life with Eugene Ormandy's Columbia Masterworks recording (1965), this modern recording comes as a revelation, both for its sonic clarity and Dausgaard's vastly superior grasp of Mahler's message.

First the sound. The dynamic range is vast; in fact, one must play this disc at a much higher volume setting in order to hear the softest passages. Mahler's supreme skill at orchestration includes, like Bruckner, mountains of sound, within which there are endless subtleties and delicacies. This stereo recording reveals them all, as Dausgaard etches each inner line of Mahler's polyphony, with the SSO's musicians' eager response. In the Ormandy recording, there are no soft passages; everything is compressed into an over-emphatic loudness. For instance, the opening notes, which are hints of the sonic landscape to come, are so loud that one wants to duck! Dausgaard, on the other hand, gives those opening lines so little energy that they take on an eerie intensity that turns them into whispers begging the question: where are we heading? Thus, when Mahler launches us from this quiet searching into the opening theme, the effect is so rich, so warm, and so satisfying that the listener surrenders all anxiety and floats away in bliss. This melody is an ear worm to die for!

There are two instances where I prefer the Ormandy recording. First, the famous bass drum of the Philadelphia Orchestra has a warmer sound, making the impact of the repeated drum strokes of the last two movements more satisfying. But perhaps the dryer sound of Seattle's drum is appropriately scarier? You decide. Second, the excellent strings of the Seattle Symphony are nonetheless no match for the sumptuous intensity of the Philadelphia strings when Mahler launches into the final, exultant statement of the last movement. Truly hair-raising!

Then there's Dausgaard's supreme mastery of Mahler's meaning and of his complex polyphony and orchestration. Every note makes its mark. The loud passages, unlike in the 1965 recording, never suffer a 'traffic jam,' in which clarity is lost in sonic confusion. Even more important, Dausgaard miraculously conveys at every turn that the music is going somewhere. So taut is the fabric that those instances when Mahler dramatically breaks that flow have maximum impact. The clarity of his control of orchestral dynamics and textures is greatly aided by the spacious sound of this CD.

It's tempting to go on and on about the glories of this symphony, but the challenge of trying to convey in words what only the music itself can say is daunting. Even though this is a work that was completed over many years' work by Deryck Cooke, this is nonetheless Mahler at his best. The richness of thematic material is as great or greater than in any of his other symphonies. Get this CD (on the Seattle Symphony label) and be swept away!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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