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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.7 (1904-1905) [82:35]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 41 in C major, K551 ‘Jupiter’(1788) [29:12]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
rec. live, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 29 August 1980 (Mahler); Royal Albert Hall, London, 13 September 1985 (Mozart). ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL4224-2 [64:22 + 46:49]



BBC Legends are doing a fine job of bringing Klaus Tennstedt back into the catalogue (see review of BBCL4208-2). EMI have treated him fairly abysmally since his death in 1998, letting most of his recordings fade into obscurity. Tellingly, the only EMI recordings that have lasted until the present are his concerto performances with Nigel Kennedy, and his famous Mahler cycle (EMI Classics 5729412). More recently, after countless archive issues from BBC, LPO’s own in-house label and Profil Meridien, EMI appear to have become wise to Tennstedt’s cult status. His performances of Beethoven and Bruckner have snuck back into the catalogue as a pair of Gemini doubles, and some of his Strauss is for the time being available on EMI Encore (EMI 5864372). There are even DVDs of Wagner and Mahler (Symphonies 1 and 8). Noticeable by their absence are symphonies by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann (3, 4 and the Konzertstuck for horns and orchestra), Brahms and Dvořák, piano concertos by Brahms (No.1 with Ohlsson), Grieg and Schumann (both with Gutierrez) and various other works by Prokofiev, Kodaly, Brahms (Schicksalslied and the Alto Rhapsody, with Meier). And then there is a small matter of his live Mahler recordings (symphonies 1, 5, 6, 7) and Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
 
Tennstedt was something of a minor celebrity on the London musical scene in the 1980s. His appointment, first to the post of Principal Guest Conductor of the LPO in 1980 and then to Music Director in 1983 coincided with the famous series of Mahler recordings that he made during that period. Beloved of audiences and orchestra alike, it was not surprising that EMI, when faced with the completion of his bankable Mahler cycle, decided to start licensing live recordings from other agencies to feed the desire of the gullible concert-going public for new Mahler-Tennstedt releases. EMI’s cynicism was the collector’s dream come true; not only were there new recordings, but they were, by and large, more successful than their studio predecessors. It may be that licensing issues prohibit the re-release of those recordings, but it is a great shame that they are not available; the DVD performance of the First Symphony is, I believe, the same as that released on CD. I have never heard, or been able to get hold of, the three-disc set of the Sixth and Seventh symphonies dating from the early 1990s - I saw it advertised, second-hand, on ‘Amazon’ a while back for £150 - but the 1988 performance of the Fifth is quite simply one of the finest I have heard. This, I think, was actually broadcast on TV by the BBC, so let’s hope that either EMI or the BBC release it at some point.
 
The present issue gives us that most esoteric of Mahler’s symphonies, the Seventh. I have to confess that I’ve always found this symphony the weakest of his studio cycle. Tennstedt approached Mahler from a very Romantic viewpoint. The more modernistic, disruptive elements tended to go by the wayside. If there is any one of Mahler’s completed works in which such an approach may create serious problems, it is this one.
 
First of all, there is the overall plan of the symphony, an epic, intensely symphonic allegro followed by three, quite bizarre and lightweight tone poems, capped by a riotous final movement that whirls like a somewhat off-kilter carousel. It is the final movement that generally causes problems for conductors; unsure whether this strange amalgam of influences - Lehár, Wagner, Viennese café music - is a savagely ironic indictment of the contemporary Viennese music scene or a good-humoured romp. The results are rarely satisfactory. Tennstedt, as it happens, does rather well in this movement. It is with the first that doubts arise.
 
Very few conductors get ‘lost’ in this movement, generally managing to produce a coherent musical argument. Apart from Tennstedt, only Klemperer gets it wrong; but then, his performance of the symphony as a whole clocks in at a good twenty-five minutes longer than any of his rivals. I’ve always thought Tennstedt to be more successful heard live. His ability to generate expressive tension in performance was legendary, his Mahler concerts ‘his apotheosis’ (Lebrecht, quoted in the notes for the present issue). Yet he rarely managed to convey such in the studio. I am more convinced than ever that this is what saves his studio performance of this work - recorded at roughly the same time as this live issue.
 
In concert, without the emotional constraints of the studio, Tennstedt’s extravagances do stretch the credibility of this first movement. The opening is powerfully built, but at times sloppily played. Early in his relationship with the LPO, one gets the impression that they were still not entirely accustomed to his notoriously vague beat. The ensuing allegro con fuoco is well nigh perfectly paced, and the orchestral playing demonstrates the best aspects of Tennstedt’s approach to a ‘Mahler sound’. This is really muscular, dark-hued playing, horns whooping and roaring to the manner born. It is pretty much a unique sound, utterly identifiable and representative of much of Tennstedt’s work with this orchestra.
 
Problems begin to arise with the appearance of the heavenly, C major second subject. To put it simply, Tennstedt is just far too slow. The result is incredibly beautiful, haunting and at times rather unsettling. Fastidious attention to Mahler’s little pauses and hesitations, and a scrupulous observation of dynamic markings create a bewitching, carefully balanced orchestral palette. But taken in context, this is too much of an impediment to the flow of the music. Once may be acceptable, but this material appears three times during the course of the music and that, in a symphonic allegro is too much slow music.
 
The development gets off to a cracking start, and those little moments of ‘suspension’ - as Adorno termed them - actually benefit from Tennstedt’s hyper-expressive approach. Time really does stand still during these passages, due not to excessively slow tempi but to Tennstedt’s highlighting of Mahler’s little hesitations and indications such as sehr gehalten.
 
Unfortunately, Tennstedt’s general approach to Mahler could never hope fully to encompass the scope of this development section. Mahler effectively tears up and burns the remains of the sonata form rule book here, before scattering its ashes over the nearest Alp. Gone are conventional notions of development through motivic and harmonic transformation; here Mahler develops his material through increasingly disorientating contrasts of orchestration, pitch, timbre and colour. In Tennstedt’s favour, there is much exciting conducting and playing, and yet too much of Mahler’s intent is lost.
 
Once again, Tennstedt slows inordinately for the ecstatic B major apotheosis of that second subject. I have rarely heard this music so beautifully projected, balanced to perfection and played with that uniquely Mahlerian combination of virtuosity and tentativeness. But by this point we are well over half way through this movement, and feeling somewhat disorientated - for all the wrong reasons. Mahler has been happily wrong-footing us with his unusual juxtapositions and melodies that simply do not fit with his harmonies - ‘super-chromaticism - Adorno again’.
 
All in all, a rather episodic approach to the opening movement, although that will not be a problem for everyone. I’d personally prefer to wander through a forest in which the trees were exciting and beautiful than one that has been planned to the nth degree to achieve structural perfection.
 
The second movement, one of two Nachtmusiken opens with another extraordinary example of Adorno’s suspensions; once again Tennstedt achieves a captivating sense of space through scrupulous attention to dynamics. The woodwind playing at the opening of this movement is astonishingly vivid, each line projected with great accuracy. Throughout this wind-orientated movement, trills and accents hit home to great effect. Ensemble is generally excellent, although the apparent lack of a clear down-beat from Tennstedt does produce some scrappy moments. Atmosphere is well conveyed, and the characterisation of this movement and its two successors is far more acute than in the roughly contemporaneous studio recording.
 
Indeed, these central movements are the unlikely highlight of this performance. The LPO really does play with subtlety as well as virtuosity. In the third movement, just listen out for the strings at the appearance of the ländleresque D major theme (figure 126 for those with a score); violins laceratingly intense, lower strings digging into their instruments with extreme vehemence. Tennstedt takes Mahler’s pesante marking shortly after fig. 141 to mean an exact halving of tempo. This creates a rather nice hemiola-like effect with the succeeding bar, but in such a densely annotated score, I am fairly certain that if Mahler had wanted such an exaggeration, he would have asked for it. Only Leif Segerstam outdoes Tennstedt here. Or, perhaps Klemperer, although I’d given up on his recording a long way before this point.
 
The second Nachtmusik highlights another Tennstedt trait; emphasising the darker elements of Mahler’s sound-world. It is incredibly atmospheric, although many will prefer a plainer, more ‘natural’ account than Tennstedt’s ripely romantic one. As in the first movement, Tennstedt is very good at those moments of stasis; the passage for strings and harp preceding the return of the opening material is particularly effective.
 
Tempi become something of an issue at the start of the finale, with several jarring gear-changes in the first few pages. However, the performance soon settles down. I cannot blame Tennstedt for the episodic approach in this movement; the music is inherently episodic. But the whole movement is played with such exuberance, confidence and relish for orchestral detail that it cannot fail to make an impression. I do not think that Tennstedt really has anything profound to say about this music but given that critics, performers and audiences have never been able to agree on how to approach it, I am not prepared to hold that against him. And the conclusion to the symphony is overwhelming.
 
I thoroughly enjoyed this performance. That it is not Tennstedt’s finest Mahlerian work does not, these days, mean much. You would be hard-pressed to hear a Mahler performance of such subtlety, insight and understanding of the idiom from any conductor performing today (Abbado and Jansons aside). But it must be taken on its own terms: Tennstedt’s terms. I am not sure that I would prefer it to his studio account which has the great virtue of being coupled with all of the other symphonies but I am certainly glad to have heard it. Those wanting to hear Tennstedt will obviously want this performance; others may want to look elsewhere. On CD, Abbado’s BPO remake effectively removed all competition in this symphony (DG 4176232 - see review); until his DVD with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra arrived (Euroarts 2054629 - see review). No-one can match Abbado’s authority in this symphony, not even Bernstein. As luck would have it, the two finest recordings of this work are DVD only; the aforementioned Abbado, and Bernstein; the latter best available as part of a complete cycle, but then it is probably the finest overall cycle in any form.
 
So, a qualified welcoming reception for this example of Tennstedt conducting Mahler.
 
Not so a remarkable performance of Mozart’s Symphony No.41 in C, the ‘Jupiter’, captured at a Prom concert in September 1985. The Proms were, as Kurt Masur recently reminded Norman Lebrecht (see article) ‘Tennstedt’s favourite forum’. Tennstedt loved the Proms and, two years into his tenure as the LPO’s music director, the Proms and the orchestra clearly loved him. In Michael Jameson’s informative booklet notes, he mentions that in this performance ‘Tennstedt emerges as an adroit and scholarly interpreter of this most expansive of Classical symphonies, even allowing for occasional concessions to modernity’. Whilst Jameson’s assessment is entirely accurate, it would be unfortunate to construe that this is an overly scholarly, sterile performance. Indeed, Tennstedt was largely incapable of producing anything even approaching sterility, particularly in the presence of an audience. What emerges, then, is a lively, exuberant, warm-hearted performance that manages, more than most latter-day recordings of this repertoire, to suggest the manners of ‘period’ performance in the context of a fairly large orchestra in a large hall.
 
One of those ‘concessions to modernity’ that Jameson mentions is Tennstedt’s omission of nearly every repeat; of course, in contemporary terms, a ‘modern’ performance would most likely include all of them. A cursory glance at the movement timings for the present performance and a June 1980 performance in Hamburg (with the NDR) suggests that this was Tennstedt’s way with the piece; the timings are virtually identical.
 
Those accustomed to Tennstedt’s burnished, autumnal way with Beethoven and Schubert will almost certainly be surprised, as I was, by the opening of the Allegro vivace. Vivace is certainly the keyword here, and the crisp articulation from all concerned is light years away from ‘old-school’ interpretation. There is buoyancy and rhythmic drive aplenty, largely as a result of Tennstedt’s pointing of articulation and accompanying figures; try the triplet motif in the violins that support the beautifully played first subject.
 
Phrasing throughout the movement is eminently stylish; each line has the sense of leading somewhere. Tennstedt knows just when to bring out the bass line to point up the harmonic direction. Indeed, the orchestral balance over the span of the work as a whole is something of a miracle given the inevitable muddiness of the RAH acoustic.
 
The central movements are not quite as satisfying. The Andante cantablile is at a pleasingly flowing speed, just the right side of too slow, and there is much lovely playing; but with Mozart’s instruction of con sordino robbing the strings of some of their edge, the performance falls foul of the acoustic. Unfortunately it is the performance of the third movement that I find, frankly, unacceptable. Both the minuet and trio are simply too stately so that the result cannot fail to sound heavy-handed, despite predictably fine playing and attention to detail. Incidentally, here Tennstedt includes all repeats in the minuet and trio, but customarily excludes them in the da capo.
 
The Molto Allegro finale sees the performance back to its best, stressing the molto. Indeed, the precision of ensemble and sense of rhythmic control is remarkable given Tennstedt’s notoriously erratic beat, and pays testament to the rapport that he had with the LPO by this time. In the development, trumpets and horns rasp joyously and the sense of exhilaration and exultation in the final pages raises the spirits like few other performances. It is a winning account, and the audience obviously thought so too; one of the great features of these BBC Legends issues is that they retain audience applause at the ends of works.
 
All in all, a mixed release. Tennstedt’s Mahler is best served elsewhere, but examples of him in Mozart are few and far between. Fans will no doubt want it anyway; other collectors will probably want to sample the Mozart first. I am certainly glad to have encountered this release.
 
Owen E Walton
 



 


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