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 Recording of the Week  Münchner Philharmoniker launch their own label with music by Bruckner and Mahler

The last few years have seen a flourishing of orchestras setting up their own CD labels, and today the Munich Philharmonic joins this prestigious list with its first two releases under their current principal conductor, Valery Gergiev. The orchestra has a long and distinguished association with the music of Anton Bruckner, with many highly-regarded performances under some of its previous music directors (Sergiu Celibidache, in particular), and so I was expecting great things from this recording of the Fourth Symphony!

Valery Gergiev
Valery Gergiev

The first thing to say about this performance is the completely commanding horn solo in the opening bars: immaculately clean, wonderfully smooth, totally controlled, and with none of the swoopy slurs that you sometimes hear. I kept listening to this solo just to marvel at how extraordinary it is! It may seem somewhat odd for me to focus on such a small moment in the context of a seventy-minute symphony, but it really does set the tone for the whole performance, and is a perfect example of the sheer experience and class that an orchestra like this can give to music that is so deeply ingrained in its performance history.

I was intrigued to hear how Gergiev, a conductor sometimes accused of being too driven in his performances and for not allowing sufficient time to let the music breathe, would approach the music of Bruckner, a composer known for his expansive, monumental walls of sound. I needn’t have been concerned, however, for while in places he is a touch swifter than one might be used to hearing, he knows when to relax and give the music space. A case in point is the third movement, where after a fairly brisk Scherzo, the central Trio is quite a bit slower than I expected, but this served as a pleasing contrast to the bustle of the outer sections.

Paired with this is an equally impressive account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2; the first movement in particular seems exactly right: tempos are (for me, at least) spot on and it all flows naturally and inevitably. Where this performance scores most for me, though, is the second movement, Andante moderato. It is marked “Very leisurely. Never rush”, and so, as I mentioned with the Bruckner above, I was interested to hear what Gergiev would do, but I was delighted to hear that in his hands it is full of poise and elegance, certainly purposeful where required, but at no point did it feel rushed or hurried, helped considerably by some delicate and refined playing from the strings.

The Scherzo has character in abundance, with cheeky clarinets and plaintive oboes. Gergiev seems to have relaxed his view of this movement since his earlier recording for LSO Live, which for me was perhaps slightly too propulsive: here everything feels much more at ease without losing any of the mood. This is followed by an impassioned reading of the Urlicht movement from mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, supported by some noble brass chorales, which leads the way to a tempestuous final movement, with Gergiev whipping up a storm when needed, but also finding plenty of moments of stillness (the off-stage horn calls are suitably full of inexorable portent, for instance).

I should also say a word about the magnificent choral singing, which is beautifully hushed for their first entry, rising to a gloriously full tone towards the end (the men’s cry of “Bereite dich!” (“Prepare yourself!”) is one of my favourite moments of the symphony, and it doesn’t disappoint here!). So, all in all, a fantastic start for this new label!

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in Eb Major 'Romantic'

Münchner Philharmoniker, Valery Gergiev

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 'Resurrection'

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano) & Olga Borodina (mezzo), Münchner Philharmoniker & Munich Philharmonic Choir, Valery Gergiev

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC