Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's New Releases
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The Independent Culture

I've never thought of Mahler as being an especially balletic composer, though a new Teldec Classics recording of his all-encompassing Third Symphony comes close to dancing. This is Mahler's evocation of nature's first awakenings. But while most conductors home in on the first movement's Jurassic horn calls and percussion thunder, Kent Nagano makes a play for the village band episode at the movement's centre. Low strings bounce in first (from about 19'30"), then woodwinds follow their cue (with a lusty oompah bringing up the rear), before the merry forces march off leaving the brass to restate their opening alarm.

I've never thought of Mahler as being an especially balletic composer, though a new Teldec Classics recording of his all-encompassing Third Symphony comes close to dancing. This is Mahler's evocation of nature's first awakenings. But while most conductors home in on the first movement's Jurassic horn calls and percussion thunder, Kent Nagano makes a play for the village band episode at the movement's centre. Low strings bounce in first (from about 19'30"), then woodwinds follow their cue (with a lusty oompah bringing up the rear), before the merry forces march off leaving the brass to restate their opening alarm.

Nagano likes to keep things on the move. The Menuetto second movement is pliant and breezy, while Joachim Pliquett's posthorn solo adds a deeply nostalgic perspective to the Scherzo. Dagmar Pecková sings movingly of eternal depths while choral forces from Berlin and Hanover chime in harmony of heavenly joy. The loving finale is uninhibited in its ardour and yet the overriding impression is of an epic fantasy, rarely pausing save for those precious moments where Mahler makes space for contemplation. I've not enjoyed a Mahler Three as much since Leonard Bernstein's first (Sony) version, and this one is a good deal better recorded.

Nagano's 95-minute Mahler comes ungenerously spread over two full-price CDs, whereas Fazil Say's staggering multi-piano recreation of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring ballet - which is also released by Teldec - sits alone on a single 31-minute disc. Mind you, that's largely down to Say himself, who boldly asserts (rightly in my view) that The Rite is so powerful and self-sufficient that any coupling would have been inappropriate.

The miracle here, aside from the sheer technical wizardry needed to superimpose various lines of music, is in how Say manages to avoid even the slightest suggestion of rhythmic rigidity. True, the "Dance of the Young Girls" pounds away much as it would on a full orchestra and the "Dance of the Earth" is properly propulsive. I'm thinking more of "Spring Rounds" or the introduction to "The Sacrifice", where Say's overlaid contributions suggest a single flexible gesture.

The performing ground plan is based on the composer's own version for "one piano, four hands", though the appliance of science allows for extra interpolations that a mere four hands could never have managed. Every note remains intact and every pulsing gesture is given its full force. The last dance of all - the Sacrifice itself - leaps about with the sort of hotfoot lightness that's barely possible on an orchestra.

Another pay-off is in the way Say illuminates The Rite's structure, homing in on harmonic aspects of the score that are commonly shielded by the din of an orchestra in full cry. Hence we hear a good many of Stravinsky's musical children. Copland registers again and again, but what really surprised me was how, towards the very end of the score, Prokofiev holds up the last movement of his Seventh Piano Sonata. I would never have made the connection if Say hadn't made it first.

Mahler: Pecková, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Nagano

(Teldec 8573-82354-2, two discs)

Stravinsky: Say

(Teldec 8573-81041-2)

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