As NY Beckons, Van Zweden Hits, Misses On 2 CDs

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Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano). Women of the Dallas Symphony Chorus. Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas. Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden. DSO Live 007 (2 CDs). Total Time: 96:25.

Wagner: Das Rheingold. Matthias Goerne (Wotan). Michelle DeYoung (Fricka). Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden. Naxos 8.660374-75 (2 CDs). Total Time: 2:33:35

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — In 2018, Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden will take the reins of the New York Philharmonic. In the meantime, the collaborations between van Zweden and his two current orchestras, the Dallas Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic, continue to impress audiences and critics alike. Two new recordings — one with each of his orchestras — give us some sense of what to expect from van Zweden in New York.

Jaap van Zweden conducting the Dallas Symphony at Meyerson Symphony Hall.
Jaap van Zweden conducting the Dallas Symphony at Meyerson Symphony Center.

He was a gifted violinist before he became a conductor, studying at Juilliard and then becoming, at 19, the youngest-ever concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Although it was Leonard Bernstein who first encouraged van Zweden to try conducting, the Dutchman had been forming his ideas about orchestral repertoire by working with and watching the Concertgebouw’s regular conductors. When van Zweden discusses the music of Bruckner, for example, the conductors he most often mentions are Bernard Haitink and Eugen Jochum. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose historically informed approach van Zweden found thought-provoking and inspiring, was also a frequent guest at the Concertgebouw.  Although van Zweden’s approach to, say, the St. Matthew Passion is basically traditional, it does incorporate elements of Harnoncourt’s Bach interpretations, particularly with respect to the use of vibrato and bowing.

Van Zweden’s rather limited repertoire — he’s more interested in quality than quantity — could prove a liability in New York. He believes in painstaking study before conducting any score in public, and the time needed for such study is the main factor in determining the size of his repertoire. He recorded all the Bruckner symphonies with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, albeit over many years. He has yet to do a complete Beethoven cycle in Dallas, returning again and again to Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh symphonies. Similarly, while he has conducted magnificent performances of several Mahler symphonies with the Dallas Symphony, including a European tour with the Sixth Symphony, he hasn’t yet completed a Mahler cycle.

VanZwedenDasRheingoldThis new recording of the Mahler Third is based on live performances given last May at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas. The hall has excellent acoustics, and the orchestra sound is wonderful under almost any conductor. That said, under van Zweden, especially in music by Bruckner, Mahler, and Shostakovich, the orchestra sounds extraordinary; in fact, it rivals the best in the country for the quality of its string playing, the excellence of its solo winds, and its vast range of expression.

All these features are in evidence in this fine performance of the Mahler Third. Van Zweden, attentive to the tiniest detail in Mahler’s scoring, also has an authoritative grasp of the work’s structure. With respect to the strings, it should be noted that it was van Zweden who persuaded Alexander Kerr to join the Dallas Symphony as concertmaster. Kerr had succeeded van Zweden as concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and went on to teach at Indiana University. Dallas’ co-concertmaster is another van Zweden recruit and a phenomenal young violinist, Nathan Olson. On the stand behind them sits Emmanuelle Boisvert, former concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony.

Although encouraged to conduct by Bernstein, whom he greatly admired, van Zweden takes an approach to Mahler that is closer to Haitink than Bernstein — far less personal.  Both Haitink and van Zweden believe that a successful performance comes from fidelity to the written score. In van Zweden’s Mahler Third, there are no arbitrary tempo changes or exaggerated dynamics. This respect for the score yields moments of great beauty and excitement.

The two choirs and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor are first-rate. Special mention must be made of two outstanding guest musicians who took part in these performances: Joseph Alessi, principal trombone of the New York Philharmonic, plays magnificently in his big solos in the first movement; and Thomas Rolfs, principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony, brings a wonderfully ethereal quality to his post horn solos in the third movement.

Van Zweden in rehearsal with the Hong Kong Philharmonic.
Van Zweden in rehearsal with the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

While the Hong Kong Philharmonic is not yet on the same level as the Dallas Symphony, it is already a very good orchestra. A few more years under van Zweden’s direction, and almost anything is possible. Every year more and more Asian musicians — especially from China and Korea — are studying at leading music schools and winning auditions with major orchestras. Some of the Chinese players are returning to their homeland to make their own orchestras better. Hong Kong is a modern, vibrant, and wealthy city and might very well have a world-class orchestra within a decade.

In Hong Kong, Jaap van Zweden is conducting plenty of standard repertoire, but when he accepted the position of music director, he insisted on presenting Wagner’s Ring cycle for the first time anywhere in China, in concert and on a recording, feeling that the orchestra needed to be challenged beyond its comfort level.

All that having been said, the first installment of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Ring cycle is disappointing. The orchestra plays quite well, though it sounds as if it’s positioned behind a curtain and never makes the impact it needs in the Das Rheingold, at least as far as one can tell from the very poor recording quality. Compare, for example, Simon Rattle’s recent recording (BR Klassik 900133) of Das Rheingold with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in which the orchestra has real presence; it makes all the difference. Or the 1958 John Culshaw studio recording (Decca 478 8370) — with Sir Georg Solti leading the Vienna Philharmonic — which remains a model of how it should be done.

The cast in the van Zweden recording is at most adequate, with the exception of Matthias Goerne (Wotan), whose intelligent rendering of the text and rich, sonorous voice are excellent.

An appreciation of van Zweden’s conducting is severely hampered by the quality of the recording. This project might get better as it goes on, but serious attention needs to be given to properly capturing the sound of the orchestra. Even that may not be enough, as van Zweden’s conception of the score is too careful and restrained.

So, we have some fine Mahler from Dallas and baffling Wagner from Hong Kong as evidence of what van Zweden is up to these days. Clearly a man with big ideas, he has elicited mixed results to date. As a musician of great determination and exacting standards, he will certainly experience missteps along the way, but there will surely be triumphs as well. It will be exciting, no doubt, to watch his development as he prepares to take charge of the New York Philharmonic, beginning with the orchestra’s 177th season.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.comwww.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.