Gerard Schwarz, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Artek AR-0041-2 2-disc set.
The idea of combining Mahler's very first and very last completed symphonies in the same set seemed pretty appealing to me. After all, you get to hear, contrast, and compare the composer's stylistic progression from beginning to end in one sitting. It might have worked better for me, though, if I hadn't made the mistake of starting with the First Symphony.
You see, on the discs, it's Symphony No. 9 that begins things. No, I couldn't do it that way. I figured the best way to judge these things was to start with the earliest symphony, which begins on the second disc. The problem is that the First Symphony is Schwarz's weakest performance of the two, which may have clouded my judgment for the conductor's reading of the sublime Ninth.
So, what's wrong with Schwarz's First? At first I wasn't sure. Frankly, it sounded too slow to me. So about halfway through the recording, I checked Schwarz's timings against four other Mahler Firsts on my shelf. Schwarz was the fastest of all in all four movements. How could this be? I think it's because Schwarz shows such little expression. His tempos never seem to vary; there is seldom any color or expression anywhere in sight. The First Symphony should begin in hushed silence, which Schwarz carries out well, but by the end (by of each movement and by the finale) it should be exultant. Schwarz misses the exultant part. Put alongside Solti (Decca), Mackerras (EMI), Horenstein (Unicorn), and Tennstedt (EMI), I found Schwarz downright dull and unimaginative.
Then came the Ninth, the crowning jewel in Mahler's symphonic cycle, its expressionistic content interpreted by some conductors as an optimistic journey into the light, ending in sweet and everlasting repose, and by others as a pessimistic look into the world's future where degeneration and decay would be our lot. At the time he wrote it in 1909, Mahler was well aware of his own illness and possibly imminent demise, and he probably foresaw the coming of the First World War and the end of civilization as his generation had known it. Yet under Schwarz, one doesn't quite get the feeling of either of these interpretations. Instead, we get a stately, almost angelic response from the conductor throughout, again with little change of pace and with little emphasis or difference in phrasing, as though somebody or something were holding him back from really expressing himself. Here, try Haitink (Philips) or Klemperer (EMI) or Barbirolli (EMI) or Karajan (DG), and you'll hear the difference. There is a real place for idiosyncrasy in Mahler; otherwise, we get blandness.
Artek's sound, too, is somewhat ambiguous. It is smooth and mellow, yet detailed and natural. At the same time, it's so unassuming it's almost as bland as the performances. Again, a quick comparison with any of the conductors and labels I've mentioned reveals with them a greater opening up of the sound, with greater transparency, dynamics, and impact. So, while some listeners will undoubtedly find this new recording from Schwarz and company gorgeous and serene, it is not exactly a coupling I can support, despite the good intentions.