Post-Romantic symphonies -- the symphonies of composers such as Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Elgar and Nielsen -- are often among the saddest ever written. The early 20th century was suffused by a kind of nostalgia for a world that was coming to an end -- and end it did in the cataclysm of World War I -- and the composers of the time seemed instinctively to know (as predecessors like Brahms and Bruckner did not) that they might very well be the last practitioners of a genre that first flowered with Mozart and Haydn.
As two recent Telarc recordings by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra of Elgar and Rachmaninoff demonstrate, however, one needs to distinguish between the sadnesses that are the hallmark of the great post-Romantic symphonies. Passion and sentiment may be enough to get an interpreter through the reasonably straightforward emotionalism of the Russian, but there's something about Elgar that seems peculiarly English. While splendid interpreters of Rachmaninoff range as far from Moscow as Rio de Janeiro, most of the best interpreters of Elgar were born within a day's drive of London. Good as Zinman's new recording is, it cannot displace the classic versions of such native sons as Sir Adrian Boult and Sir John Barbirolli.
The Elgar No. 1 is one of the most achingly beautiful pieces ever written, but it also has a certain reserve and formality about it. It's a lot like a Leslie Howard movie -- it's a heartthrob in white gloves. But while British emotionalism is restrained, the way to express it is not necessarily to tone it down. Compare the way Zinman and Boult approach the big tune that is the motto of the work and that appears only seconds after the symphony begins. Zinman waits a little too long to invest it with its full emotional power; Boult does so immediately. It's as if the English conductor, innately reserved, plays the music instinctively; the American conductor tries to find a balance between feeling and reserve and sounds -- by comparison -- a little contrived.
But this new Zinman-BSO performance is still one of the best available. It's beautifully paced -- the conductor's sensible tempos eschew lugubrious slowness -- and it has genuine sweep. Moreover, it has one of the most beautiful slow movements on records. Zinman may not match Boult's seamless flow of melody, but he achieves an even more inwardly beautiful expressiveness.
The same team's recording of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 is equally lovely and even more successful as a performance. This is an interpretation that brings those of the late Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra to mind. The great slow movement, for example, is lush and tender without descending into bathos. The phrasing, long-breathed and ardent, never succumbs to the temptation of making the music too slow. Like his Mozart, the distinction of Zinman's Rachmaninoff is that it's constructed on a vocal model: It sings.
The difference between Romantic and post-Romantic symphonies is demonstrated by the failure of the late Leonard Bernstein's recording of Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 with the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon). Bernstein was one of the great interpreters of the post-Romantic Mahler's symphonies, but he was never as comfortable with Romanticism and with this particular Bruckner symphony. (There is an earlier Bernstein recording from 1971 with the New York Philharmonic that has just been reissued on Sony Classics.)
The problem here is that what makes Bernstein so good at Mahler works against his success with Bruckner. The majestic opening movement, like those in some of Mahler's symphonies, is like a universe inhabited by whirling suns and planets. But it's not a universe tormented by doubt, fear of death, and unrequited longings. Bernstein's not so much out of his depth as he is in -- for him -- an unsuitable musical environment. Bruckner is dangerous to fool around with. Mahler's music invites fluidity in interpretation. But Bruckner's musical masses -- which clash like tectonic plates in the earth's crust -- are less tractable, demanding an approach that is less volatile and more sustained. The coda of Bernstein's first movement is tremendous in weight and resonance. But it's a singular moment -- not the culmination of 27 minutes of continuous evolution.