Sinopoli meets the challenges of Mahler symphony


January 22, 1995|By David Donovan | David Donovan,Special to The Sun

Mahler, Symphony No. 7, "Kindertotenlieder," performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli, conductor, Bryn Terfel, baritone ("Kindertotenlieder") (Deutsche Grammophon 437 851-2 [DDD]; two CDs). Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5; Rimsky-Korsakov, "Russian Easter Festival" Overture, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon 437 542-2 [DDD])

Giuseppe Sinopoli first came to the musical world's attention as a composer, but he is quickly overshadowing his compositional career with his busy life as a conductor. The Mahler Seventh Symphony is part of a nearly complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies, and this performance is the finest in the series so far. Sinopoli is totally at home with the challenges of the score. Every bar seems to have been examined in a new light. The result is that Mahler's strangest symphony is given free rein, and the effect is a gripping listening experience.

The Philharmonia Orchestra may not be the equal of the New York Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony, but it produces a clear and balanced sound, and no one section is allowed to obscure the orchestral detail.

The "Kindertotenlieder" that fills out the set is not up to the artistic level of the Symphony No. 7. Bryn Terfel has a pleasant voice, but his delivery of the text is just too ordinary. Earlier recordings by singers Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kathleen Ferrier, Hermann Prey and Janet Baker have much more to say about this tragic cycle of "Songs on the Death of Children." This recording is an import, and availability may be limited.

The Tchaikovsky disc is not as revelatory as the Mahler, but Sinopoli gives a vivid account of this often-recorded symphony. The interpretation is like George Szell's in its athletic approach to the score. Additionally, Sinopoli maintains the lushness of the score by letting the phrases breathe with tempos that slightly push and pull the piece toward climactic events. The Valse is especially ravishing, and the last movement is typically heroic.

The Philharmonia Orchestra is sounding more like an American or great German orchestra. The brass are unified, and the woodwinds are able to play as soloists and then play as a choir. The strings have both a beautiful sound and the full-bodied attacks that Tchaikovsky demands.

Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Festival" Overture is tons of orchestration and not much music, but it is a fun piece, and Sinopoli elicits great sound and committed orchestral execution.


Brahms, Symphony No. 3, Opus 90; Schubert, Symphony No. 5, D.485; Mendelssohn, "Hebrides" Overture ("Fingal's Cave"), Opus 26, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor (RCA Gold Seal 09026-61793-2 [ADD])

When this listener met the great bassoonist Leonard Sharrow, who had played principal bassoon for Toscanini and Fritz Reiner, Sharrow said that Reiner "was always less than human" in dealing with his orchestral players. The results were usually electrifying. This recording sounds as if the players were terrified at the Brahms and Schubert sessions, but the result is music-making that is note-perfect and nothing else.

The Brahms is the most disappointing when one compares it with other great recordings of the score. Where Reiner is calculated, Szell (Sony) and Klemperer (EMI) give the music room to breathe and grow.

The Schubert is simply too precious. Conductor Thomas Beecham (EMI) knew that this charming music has to sing to come to life. The Mendelssohn does show Reiner and the Chicago Symphony at their fiery best, but one 10-minute overture is scarcely reason to buy a recording, even one at mid-price.

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