Hans Vonk, STLSO: Mahler Sym 4: Big Band, Grand & Glowing, M
Dan Fee | Berkeley, CA USA | 09/29/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Arch Media has been issuing various discs with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (StLSO) under former music director Hans Vonk. You can get this fourth Mahler symphony, plus Beethoven, Bruckner, Messiaen, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy-Ravel-Roussel, Tchaikovsky, Faure-Schoenberg, Mozart - Schumann, Beethoven piano concertos with Christian Zacharias on EMI, and a smattering of opera. My first encounter with this Dutch musician was not entirely auspicious - the complete Nutcracker Ballet music with Dresden (Tchaikovsky). It was well played, technically; but tempos and phrasing struck me as more squared off and less balletic than ideal in first rank Nutcracker readings.
On this disc we also get soprano soloist, Esther Heideman. She rose through the ranks, including winning the MET opera auditions, then being cast as Pamina at the MET and so forth. She also does quite a lot of oratorio, not just opera. Her Carnegie Hall debut was the soprano soloist in Handel's Messiah. As all of that background suggests, she has just the right sort of soprano voice for the final movement soprano solo in Mahler's fourth symphony. Critics have praised her silvery, pure tone; apt indeed for this Mahler assignment.
My benchmarks for this symphony have long included Horenstein with Margaret Price, Maazel in Vienna with Kathleen Battle, Salonen in Los Angeles with Barbara Hendricks, Gary Bertini in Cologne with Lucia Popp, Otto Klemperer with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Szell with Judith Raskin. Add in Boulez with Juliane Banse in super audio surround. After hearing Vonk and STLSO through, I think this reading would be welcome in our extensive, exalted commercial catalog.
Vonk is no wild man, no modernist-innovator.
He prefers very mainstream tempos, though he can nuance the musical flow with a very subtle, very deft rubato. His inflections are so attentive to the solid, basic tempo he sets with the players, that one easily misses the fact completely. Conducting students could learn huge lessons from Vonk so expertly setting, then inflecting, the rhythm-tempo flow. Hearing him carry through in just this manner is a delight on this disc, since the band is truly with him; there is never a troubled sense of the conductor having to push or pull the players along. By the time of this concert, Vonk was known to be in failing health; and audience, players, and probably the conductor himself, probably realized that this might be Vonk's farewell to St. Louis, to music. The touches of stiff square phrasing which I earlier heard in Vonk's Nutcracker with Dresden are nowhere to be found in this Mahler reading. Bravo, woodwinds. Marvelous.
Vonk's profound involvement with the music stands him in very good stead in all four movements; but the slow third movement is superbly managed. Indeed, both Vonk and the band are so good, so consistent - a main danger in hearing this disc might be that we listeners are tempted to underestimate its rich music merit; everybody makes this reading sound so effortless. One wonders why St. Louis has not long been applauded as one of the great orchestras?
Esther Heideman carries off her solo with aplomb. She knows her voice, and it is spun silver from top to bottom. I'll take her any day over, say, Laura Claycomb's less focused soprano singing in Michael Tilson Thomas' SFSO fourth. No, she does not have Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's magical way with the German text; but then, who does these days? Melding with the nearly mystical connections audible between conductor and players in this reading must have been a devotional altar, candlelit, all its own.
Recorded live in concert, brief applause swells at the end; but while I usually violently resent the intrusion, in this instance the reading has so charmed me, I've temporarily lost my curmudgeonly inclinations.
Bravo, band. Bravo, soprano soloist. Bravo, conductor. (Bravo, engineers) Underestimate this disc at your own risk of losing out on something special from St. Louis. Maybe check out Hans Vonk's other St. Louis discs in the Arch Media lists? Five stars."
Very good, w/ outstanding vocal contribution from Heideman
B. Guerrero | 11/14/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Once again, Hans Vonk and the St. Louis Symphony surprise and surpass all of my expectations: this is a truly decent Mahler 4, with an outstanding vocal contribution from Esther Heideman. She has a fresh, innocent sounding voice - with no audible strain - yet doesn't sound the least bit affected, or as though she's making parody on the naivete of children. She's the real deal - the best I've heard in a long, long time. Michaele Kaune comes closest (Zdenek Macal/Czech Phil./Exton). As for the rest of it, it's quite good.
The first movement is particularly good, where Hans Vonk, like Abbado, employs a lot of rubato and contrasting tempi. Woodwinds sound very forward, and the triangle - a part that's far more prominent than you might imagine - is audible throughout as well. The horns are excellent, although the SLSO trumpets are sometimes just a tad too bright and pointed sounding for my taste (pretty typical for American trumpet players, though). Still, this is a small complaint at best. How are the trombones, you ask? . . . fooled you! - there are no trombones in the 4th. The high strings are mostly very good, and the lower strings register throughout, but without sounding too heavy either. Good stuff.
The second movement is a tad slow from my taste, but everything in it is well characterized. Sorry, but I happen to buy into Roger Norrington's argument that Mahler meant for the scherzo to be conducted one beat to the bar (instead of three beats to the bar). His scherzo makes a lot of sense to me. Anyway, the slow movement goes quite well too. Although, at the movement's climax, the famous "crash; boom" effect (cymbals/bass drum) is slightly undermined by a bass drum that sounds a bit too small, and is curiously underplayed. It really almost sounds more like timpani there. Again, this is a rather minor complaint.
All in all, this is quite good - another sleeper in this Vonk/SLSO series. I wouldn't rate it higher than the Macal/Czech Phil. M4, simply because Exton has provided such outstanding sound quality. Also, Kaune is nearly the equal of Heideman (and both are vastly superior to either of Vaclav Neumann's sopranos in M4). And like Hans Vonk, Macal treats the 4th as primarily a "neo-classical" work by Mahler; far more influenced by Bruno Walter than Klemperer or Mengelberg. But still, you could do far worse than making Hans Vonk your one and only recording of Mahler 4."