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James L. Zychowicz
Opera Today, February 2011

Issued together, this set includes recordings from two different times, with Mahler’s First Symphony based on performances from 10, 11, and 23 March 2003, and the Ninth from performances between 1 and 3 June 2006.

The pairing is optimal in terms of the timings and also the relationship between the two works, with the reminiscences from the earlier work in the later one contributing some aspects of unit to the set. As with Gerard Schwarz’s other recent Artek release of his recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, these performances offer solid interpretations of two very different works.

The recording of Mahler’s Ninth offers a fine interpretation, with a particularly well conceived reading of the first movement. As spacious as his conception of this piece may be, it is also possesses a dynamism that makes it compelling. Schwarz clearly knows the score in his attention to the details found in it, and in adhering to them allows the composer’s intentions to be heard clearly. The tutti passages are nicely voiced, with full-sounding chords that are rich in harmonic nuance and timbre; yet the sections that Mahler scored in a more intimate manner are nonetheless compelling for the way the smaller combinations of instruments emerge.

The paired Scherzo movements at the core of the Ninth almost merit attention for the ways in which Schwarz allowed each to have its individual character. The first of the two offers a contrast to the opening movement and if fault can be found, it is in the relatively quick transition between the movements. A minor quibble left to engineering, it should not reflect on the performance preserved here. With the second Scherzo Schwarz meets the rhythmic challenges of the music well, and from the outset distinguishes its character from the movement that precedes it. The brass are prominent in the second Scherzo, and Schwarz is good never to let them become unnecessarily raucous. Rather, there is a deft touch that emerges in this interpretation, a touch that allows for fluid transitions between the sections of the Rondo-Burleske. More than that, details, like the string glissandi are neither slightly nor over-accentuated.

Given the sustained mood of the recording, it is unfortunate that the final movement is separated through its placement on the second of the two discs. Again, this is a physical reality of the issue, not a fault in the performance. Here Schwarz sets the tone of the movement from the start, and the strings of the Liverpool Philharmonic respond well to his leadership. The rich textures emerge well in this recording, with the divisi scoring augmenting the tone colors and never obscuring them. Schwarz is good not to linger prematurely in this movement, but to maintain the logic of the musical structure in taking the piece to its conclusion. When the scoring thins, the voicing is never wanting, as the musical line unravels in the final section of this movement. The concluding passage is convincing and, in the atmosphere of the live performances that are the basis of the recording, would benefit from the inclusion of the audience’s applause at the end of the piece.

Recorded several years before, Schwarz’s interpretation of Mahler’s First Symphony is as convincing as the Ninth. As he would do later with the Ninth, Schwarz maintains a sense of direction that allows the structure to emerge in the opening movement of the First Symphony. It is good to hear the rhythmic precision of the various imitation bird-calls, such that the play of duple and triple figures is distinct. When it comes to the quotation from second song from Mahler’s cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Schwarz offers a fine sense of line that contrasts the motivic treatment of the music that preceded it. Such distinctions characterize this interpretation of the movement, and lead the listener to its conclusion.

With the Scherzo, Schwarz takes a brisk tempo from the start, a stylistic choice when the ensemble responds as well as this one. The horns, a prominent part of the scoring, have an appropriately blending sound that works well with the good woodwind ensemble. Likewise, the low strings are clear throughout, and support the rhythmic play that occurs above them. In the middle section, though, Schwarz’s relaxed tempos complement the more impetuous pace of the Scherzo.

Yet it is in the third movement that Schwarz leaves a strong impression, with a well-conceived interpretation of the slow movement. The klezmer-like sounds are distinct and never a caricature, and the quotation from the final song of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is prominent but not overstated, beginning with the subtly voiced harp that leads well to the transcription of the vocal line in the strings, a theme taken up by the woodwinds. As the line moves through the orchestra, Schwarz maintains the continuity that is implicit in the score.

The Finale is equally strong, with the quick tempos that open the movement creating a nice tension with the passages that Schwarz allows to linger. Those contrasts are more clearly defined in this movement than in some of the earlier ones, with the result satisfying for the dramatic result in this recording. When the motives from the first movement reprise, Schwarz evokes the same atmospheric mood he achieved earlier in the performance, thus, bringing out the cyclic style of this Symphony. As cleanly played as it is, the recording conveys a sense of the live performances from which it was taken. Thus, in bringing the movement to its conclusion, Schwarz allows the gestures to build naturally and convincingly to a well-paced and powerful conclusion. This is a fine recording of the First that deserves attention alongside the accompanying reading of the Ninth.

Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times, May 2010

Gerard Schwarz’s tenure with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has brought forth several well-received CDs, and one of the best of them is this mighty two-disc “Gustav Mahler” set on the Artek Recordings label, featuring Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9 in strong, big-scale recordings with a broad interpretive span

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, August 2008

One of the things I love about Mahler’s 9th Symphony is that, as he didn’t live to hear the piece and thus make post-première changes, what we have are his first thoughts, pure and simple, undiluted by the experience of rehearsal and performance. It’s as finished a piece as any of his symphonies with the obvious exception of the 10th! There’s more despair, more world-weariness, more tragedy in the Ninth, but no matter how you look at it, this isn’t, a farewell—Mahler did that quite magnificently in the Abschied of Das Lied von der Erde. Even for a composer as visionary as Mahler he could never repeat that astonishing experience. Let’s not forget that Mahler never heard Das Lied either. Perhaps it’s this lack of second thoughts that make these final two works so special.

The Ninth has had many superb recordings over the years, since the live performance by the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter in 1938. This, although imperfect, is an important historical document for it was Walter who conducted the première shortly after the composer’s death. When this performance was given, the work was only 27 years old, so it was still quite a modern piece and the approach of the players was towards an almost contemporary composition. Playing the work today, in our post-holocaust, post-atomic, age, our perceptions of the music are quite different. So what does a conductor, born to Austrian parents in the USA, after the bomb, make of this music?

Schwarz starts very well indeed, slow and mysterious, the mere flecks of music slipping into our consciousness as the various strands come together. He creates a fine first climax with the piccolo screaming at the top of the texture. The only flaw in the whole movement is that after creating the atmosphere, at the critical moment of tension there is insufficient power for the music to make its full, and devastating, impact. It’s a hair-raising instant at 19:00 where there’s a mad downward rush on the strings culminating in the opening idea played loudly on trombones and timpani, followed by distant fanfares in the brass. On the violins there’s a mad downward rush on the strings culminating in the opening idea played loudly on trombones and timpani, followed by distant fanfares in the brass.

The middle movements more or less play themselves, and very enjoyable they are except that at the start of the second movement there is a distinct lack of power and bite in the violins’ first entry; it’s polite where it needs to be rough. The long finale is finely handled, the build up to the repeat of the trumpet motif from the first movement is well controlled and the climax is glorious.

This is a very good Mahler Ninth. I’ve listened to it four times today and enjoyed every hearing, but there lies the problem. It’s a good performance, but the interpretation is lightweight—too lightweight. Mahler’s Ninth is not, unless you are the most ardent Mahler fan, which I am not, the kind of work which can be listened to four times in a day! The experience should be one of overwhelming power and tragedy which is an emotional experience and wears you out. I am afraid that Schwarz fails to deliver that necessary emotional dagger to the chest.

His performance of the 1st Symphony is an entirely different matter. The nature music of the first movement is very evocative. The “wayfarer” theme is beautifully paced. The coda, where he rather naughtily, and unnecessarily, speeds up, is thrilling. The dance of the second movement is a touch on the light side but it works within the context of the interpretation. The grotesque third movement funeral march seemed too fast on first hearing but I got used to it and found it to be well thought out. The finale, the weakest movement without a doubt, goes over the top a bit too much. It’s good, but there’s not much you can do with a piece which is either loud or quiet, romantic or shouting. The triumphant coda is superb. This is young man’s music and Schwarz has every bar at his fingertips. Despite my few reservations, he delivers a powerhouse of a performance!

Throughout the Liverpool Philharmonic plays magnificently—what a great orchestra it is!. However they can’t, and don’t, make a real Mahler (Viennese) sound; it is very English. The orchestra cannot be faulted in what it gives for Mahler. Ultimately my dissatisfaction comes from the fact that the interpretation of the 9th Symphony is lacking the grit and feeling of universality which is so important to Mahler. Oddly, if you don’t know Mahler’s music this could be a good introduction to it, as it won’t scare you off by being too serious and gut-wrenching. Ultimately though you’ll want to be wrenched and for that you need Bruno Walter, or the great Barbirolli recording with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Christopher Abbot
Fanfare, May 2008

The satiric qualities of the Rondo-Burleske are captured within a tempo that maintains a smart pace, though some details are lost in the swirling maelstrom. The trio’s “music from far away” is convincingly contrasted, but the reticent sound dissipates some of the energy of the music. Tilson Thomas finds more of the detail within a more measured tempo, while Barenboim ratchets up the grotesquerie.

Schwarz follows Mahler’s performance practice, so that the richness of the strings in the final Adagio spreads across the soundstage. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

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