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Edition Staatskapelle Dresden Vol. 17
13 Jul 2008

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 9; Richard Strauss: Tod und Verklärung

The late Guiseppe Sinopoli (1946-2001) became established as an estimable conductor of nineteenth-century music, and his legacy includes a number of fine recordings.

Gustav Mahler: Symphonie no.9 / Richard Strauss: Tod und Verklärung
Edition Staatskapelle Dresden Vol. 17

Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Guiseppe Sinopoli (cond.)

Profil Medien PH07004 [2CDs]

$34.99  Click to buy

At the same time, Sinopoli was also a dynamic conductor, whose facility on the podium can be heard in recordings of concerts, such as the ones found on this recent release on Hänssler’s Profil series, which includes the performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (completed 1909) recorded on 6 April 1997 at the Semperoper, Dresden, and Strauss’s well-known tone poem Tod und Verklärung (completed 1888-89) that is based on concerts given on 10 and 11 January 2001. The pairing of the two pieces was not intended by the conductor, but is fitting for various reasons. While Strauss’s tone poem antedates Mahler’s last completed symphony by a decade, the two works capture both composers in their maturity. By 1909 Strauss had shifted emphasis in compositions to opera, while Mahler was pursuing the concert works that demonstrate the ingenuity of his late style, as found in the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony. The latter, though, was never performed by Mahler, but had its premiere a year after its composer’s death under the direction of Bruno Walter. If Mahler’s posthumous reputation was retrenched in the 1960s with the well-known revival of interest in his works that took place around 1960, the Ninth Symphony remains one work that benefited from a number of fine recordings in the intervening years. It is a work that demands much from the orchestra and its conductor, a challenge that Sinopoli addressed well in this live recording of a concert performance.

Sinopoli had recorded this very work with the Philharmonia Orchestra four years earlier in 1993, a performance released on Deutsche Grammophon and currently available in the conductor’s set of Mahler’s symphonies. The earlier recording merits attention for various reasons, and a similar case may be made for the later one, which reflects Sinopoli’s ongoing exploration of the composer’s music. As one of Mahler’s later works, the orchestral style involves a kaleidoscopic mixture of chamber-music-like sonorities which demand a precise and attentive ensemble. Sinopoli is effective in achieving this, with the sometimes transparent scorings emerging clearly and the lines seeming almost seamless. If Sinopoli’s sense of rubato is apparent in the exposition of the first movement, it is a tribute to his command of the Staatskapelle Dresden, which responded well to him. The sometimes sudden entrances of the horns in that movement are clear and never stridently out of place. Rather, the pointillistic sounds fit together well under Sinopoli’s baton in this recording. Likewise, the strings act as a unit and offer the full, rich sound that Mahler required in this score, a sonority the stands in contrast to the concertato-like effects in the winds an brass. In the expansive tempos of the first movement, Sinopoli seems to revel in the sheer sound of the music, as occurs in the reminiscence of music from the First Symphony. With such pacing, it is possible to perceive the timbre-based units that Mahler used to support the structure of the work.

The approach to the subsequent movements is equally solid, with a masterful Scherzo that involves a fuller orchestral sound. Some of the shifts of tempo may seem, at times, idiosyncratic, as with the rubato used for the trombone passage in the first section. Sinopoli indulges in a somewhat slower interpretation of the middle section of the movement than some conductors allow, but his command of the movement is evident. The interaction of tempos is essential to the articulation of the musical structure, and Sinopoli makes the most of bringing out the distinctions he deemed necessary for his interpretation of the movement, as if to underline the differences that should be immediately apparent to the audience. A similar case may be made for the Rondo-Burleske, which includes a similar approach to the timbral distinctions between sections. At times the Rondo-Burleske possesses a drive that is sometimes lost in a live performance, and such intensity is welcome. (Unfortunately the copy on the jewel-case includes the attacca marking along with the title of the movement to render it as Attacca Rondo-Burleske.)

With the final movement, Sinopoli offers a spacious interpretation that balances his approach to the opening of the Symphony. In the Adagio-Finale, the string textures are quite effective, with a resonant and warm tone. Here the Staatskapelle Dresden demonstrates its fine core sound in a movement that is essentially chamber music on a grand scale. In this expansive interpretation it is possible to hear subtleties that sometimes escape notice. The sound is close, as occurs throughout the recording, and Sinopoli’s interpretation benefits from this perspective. As in the first movement, the various shifts of tone color serve to underscore the structure, and Sinopoli draws on them for maximum effect. The movement flows convincingly, with the full expression the music requires.

After the monumental Finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony another work may seem anticlimactic. Yet Sinopoli’s nuanced recording of Strauss’s late tone poem Tod und Verklärung somehow works well. Just as he brought out various colors of Mahler’s score, Sinopoli used a similar approach to the sometimes more broadly scored passages of Strauss’s work. With its implicitly personal program, the reflective tempos that Sinopoli uses in this recording are effective. Again, the seemingly close proximity of the microphones allows details to emerge easily, and the result is a memorable recording of Strauss’s score. The brasses shimmer without dominating, and the woodwinds offer some fine ensemble playing. The percussion, so important to this particular work, fit well into the structure and the program with appropriate incision.

Part of the ongoing audio archive of some of the exceptional performances of the Staatskapelle Dresden, this is a welcome addition to the already fine body of recordings already available. The recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony preserves Sinopoli’s later interpretation of a score that fits his style well, and those unfamiliar with his approach to Strauss’s music will find an excellent example of his work in Tod und Verklärung, a recording made not long before the conductor’s passing.

James L. Zychowicz

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