While the Royal Concertgebouw's RCO Live was still a bit green, it was clear there was great potential if the label could polish things up a bit. The orchestra ushered in Mariss Jansons' tenure as music director in the fall of 2004 with a release of his opening concert there: a performance of Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. The label has continued to release a number of classics, such as Dvorák's New World Symphony, the second symphonies of both Brahms and Sibelius, Bruckner's Eighth, and a disc that features Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances and Stravinsky's Petrouchka. This is the first release to include a contemporary work, and here RCO Live has wisely paired it with the venerable Sixth Symphony by Gustav Mahler.
Jansons has also recorded Mahler's Sixth with the London Symphony (similarly) on its LSO Live label in 2002: their account is a little more brazen and seems to take a few more risks than the one here. It's also a little leaner: this new recording clocks in at just under three minutes longer than his earlier effort. While Jansons' performance here is not outstanding, it does seem to embody the spirit of Mahler with strong characterization, scrupulous attention to detail, and a broad emotional palette. For whatever reason, though, this performance still leaves an aftertaste of emptiness akin to an ultra-light, low-carbohydrate beer.
Political dissident Hans Werner Henze's Sebastian im Traum makes this disc worthwhile, though: a co-commission between the Concertgebouw and the New York Philharmonic, this piece came to fruition in 2004. Henze's deeply reflective, brooding harmonies are enchanting, as are his twisting and exotic melodic figures. The work is based on the expressionist poetry of Georg Trakl, an Austrian poet and contemporary of Mahler's. Unfortunately, without doing their own research, listeners won't be able to grasp the profundity of the poetry: there are no translations (only the native German) in the liner notes. Much of the poetry is underpinned with death; understanding it is paramount to maximizing the powerful emotions of this brief (though stunning) 15-minute work.
RCO Live's sound is difficult to pinpoint: while deep (proof is readily offered at any climactic moment in the Mahler), there is a quality about the sound that is cold, compressed, and conversely shallow. This disc will be of great interest primarily for the Henze; Mahler aficionados may do well to look elsewhere.