- Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov, Chen Reiss: “Mahler: Symphony No. 4” (Pentatone)
- Vicky Chow, Jane Antonia Cornish: “Sierra” (Cantaloupe)
If you know anything about Proust’s mammoth In Search of Lost Time, it’s a moment from the first installment, Swann’s Way. In it, Proust describes the moment of unlocking an old memory of Sunday mornings spent with his aunt, a tiny madeleine cake, and lime-flower tea when, as an adult, he unwittingly recreates the same meal. Memory played a role in my picking up (so to speak in the age of streaming) Semyon Bychkov’s new recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Not only was his devastatingly eloquent statement on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine still fresh in my mind, but also a 2018 performance I’d seen him give with the New York Philharmonic of Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” and Strauss’s “Eine Alpensinfonie.”
Then came the sleighbells.
Until hearing Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic launch into the Schubertian slopes of the opening to Mahler’s Fourth, I’d completely forgotten that, a little over a decade ago, I spent a good month or so obsessed with the work after hearing it live for the first time. (It hadn’t been Bychkov on the podium then, but Daniel Harding.) In the years since, I’ve heard the Fourth plenty of times, but never with that wire tripped in my memory. For a conductor who, just two months ago, spoke about Putin’s regime “obliterating the memory of its victims” and forgetting as an act of betrayal, it seemed all the more fitting that Bychkov’s recording would be the one to connect the dots.
Memory is inextricably tangled up in the Fourth. Mahler wrote it in 1900, with a sense of looking back in the first movement. Its lens is keenly trained on the 19th century, on Schubert and Beethoven’s pastoral ambles. Despite this sonic nostalgia, however, the structure of the movement would have sounded disjointed to either of Mahler’s forebears. “The Fourth Symphony’s posthumous reputation as one of Mahler’s more approachable, straightforward works does not correspond with its original reception as an exercise in sacrilegious modernity,” writes Peter Franklin in his Grove entry on the composer.
From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a sleighbell into the second movement, whose narrative can be explained through its inspiration: Arnold Böcklin’s “Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle.” Death is a memory machine, especially for those left behind. Think of the phrase “in memory of,” or the old notion of a “memento mori”—literally, remember that you are going to die. Here, however, memory adds an extra layer of patina that Mahler could never have predicted: Try hearing his Ländler rhythms in this movement and not think of that key moment between Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in “The Sound of Music.”
Bychkov is a master at painting these contrasts, underscoring that, beneath the seeming simplicity and accessibility of Mahler’s Fourth, is a morass of memory. The memories invoked by death; the memories of one century as humanity veers into the next; the memories of the Fourth’s disastrous first outings, combined with a posthumous sense of “easy listening Mahler” tacked on decades later; even the premonitions of memory that Mahler could not have possibly predicted, like two world wars that would bring death to many doorsteps and destroy the remains of the empire in which the composer had grown up.
All of this seems to be at Bychkov’s fingertips when conducting the work, never overt but always there, looming in the doorway. Even in the final movement, packaged in a Hallmark-ified description of “a child’s vision of heaven” and sung here with a sweet innocence by soprano Chen Reiss, the evocations of previous themes cut in to disrupt the placid vision of an eternal paradise. While the final notes can sound like a damp squib after so many sparks of violent delight, dissipating into the ether versus crashing with a grand finale, there’s something unsettling to them here. On this recording, the final notes slip into ten seconds of near, if not total, silence. With nothing left to grab onto, we simply ebb away, back into the real world.
Or, we can follow that silence into the opening of composer Jane Antonia Cornish’s “Sierra.” Written for pianist Vicky Chow, the suite of piano works inspired by the quiet majesty of the natural world begins at a pace akin to those first Agnes Martin-ish stripes of morning light—minute gradations of color as the sky begins to lighten so gradually it almost seems to be sitting still. The lower range of the piano begins to introduce rippling undertones, while Chow’s right hand maintains an extended ethereal pause in the same few top keys being struck over and over, a belt of calm air in the upper limits of the atmosphere.
The simplicity is deceptive in Cornish’s works. It’s only as “Sierra” weaves over and over itself that you realize no pianist could possibly be doing all of this at once. Indeed, Chow’s recordings are layered, recorded with a click track “to make sure that the parts merged correctly,” as Cornish explains. And yet, it feels so tangibly whole, that it’s hard to see where the seams are in each recording. Listening to tracks like “Ocean” with these double-recordings in mind is brain-breaking in the best possible way. It’s all the same landscape.
Cornish’s landscape is lush, sun-baked, and a little hazy in the afternoon light, and Chow is adept and adroit at bringing out the glistening imagery painted in each track, with synesthetic titles like “Sky,” “Ocean,” “Sunglitter,” and “Last Light.” Each section is rife with repetition, the worlds Cornish creates folding in on themselves like Zen koans. It’s not that we forget that this or that line has been played three or four times already, it’s that, each repetition becomes unique to each moment. For Cornish, that’s the point of the work: There’s no greater mandate for the listener than to sit and listen to each moment as it comes up, without lingering as it passes. It’s the sort of effect that Proust accomplished over seven books and 1.2 million words, but one that Chow and Cornish are able to do in under 45 minutes. ¶
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