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Symphony No.3 in D minor
Symphony No.4 in G*

Ortrun Wenkel (Contralto), Lucia Popp (Soprano)*,
Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir, Southend Boys Choir,
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
(Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, in 1979 and 1982*)
EMI Double Fforte CZS5 74296 2 2 CDs [153.12]
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This is the second instalment in what may be a reissue of Klaus Tennstedt's EMI Mahler cycle with the London Philharmonic. I reviewed the coupling of the First and Second Symphonies (5741822) some months ago and now here is the Third and Fourth to move us into the digital era. In fact I think the Third was the first Mahler Symphony to be digitally recorded.

Tennstedt always seemed to approach Mahler's music from its past rather than its future. They emerge as works by a composer standing at the culmination of a 19th century tradition of romantic symphonies rather than at the start of its disintegration in the 20th. Sonorities are often richly and grandly presented, romantic and expressive opportunities are likely to be grasped with alacrity, astringency and harshness tends to be underplayed and tempi are frequently, though not always as we shall see, expansively presented. Tennstedt still has a legion of admirers for whom he can seemingly do no wrong and though I've never counted myself among them I have always admired these two recordings in spite of reservations relating to those characteristics I have outlined and which I will come to. One of the aspects of Tennstedt's Mahler conducting that always concerns me most is that he seemed surer of himself when the music was dark and tragic. That he often appeared unable, or unwilling, to deliver as convincingly as others did those passages when Mahler lightens his mood and tone. It seemed that Tennstedt was "marking time" in those passages until the next chunk of tragedy or drama came along. Perhaps we could say that when Tennstedt turned to Mahler there was "something of the night" about him. But if a performance of Mahler's music is going to do it justice it must bring out every aspect in equal measure. Only then are the full implications of Mahler's unique qualities, his world-embracing visions, likely to emerge best and most especially in movements where he changes frequently from one extreme to the other. I never really felt Tennstedt really did that. The first movement of the Third Symphony is one such movement, perhaps a paradigm, and is therefore a "graveyard" for conductors who cannot bring this aspect off. The opening paragraphs see him as a Sisyphus pushing his rock with the accent on weight and drag. Few versions are as doom-laden as this and it is certainly a memorable account of this part of the score. The problem is that when the lighter music arrives, with woodwinds chirruping and squawking in the dovecotes and strings lifting the music aloft as if those birds have flown, the mood seems to remain dark whereas it should change profoundly to signal the pattern for the rest of the movement. The great trombone solo is also surprisingly tame where it really ought to be rude and raucous. It's as though Tennstedt wants to keep this as a creature of the dark also. Likewise in the build up to the march crisis in the development there is the sense of Tennstedt waiting for the moment when he can unleash his forces in mass attack which he does do with great effect. So I think he again misses the musical equivalent of montage film editing that gives equal attention to every passage rather than some. There are impressive things in this movement, though. The sound of the LPO horns roaring at the climax of the exposition's march of summer, for example, and the close of the whole movement with brass and percussion sweeping all before them. But Horenstein (Unicorn), Barbirolli (BBC Legends), Kubelik (DG) and Bernstein (Sony and DG) all have a better grasp of every feature of this movement.

The rest of the symphony under Tennstedt works much better, though it cannot be said too often that an account of the Third where the first movement doesn't convince is a Third with one hand tied behind it's back. It might well be because each of the following five movements essentially has just one mood which Tennstedt can therefore stick to. Just to prove he is capable of the light touch the second movement is warm and beautifully pointed with a carefree air. The playing and recorded balance is alive to every colour and this carries over to the third movement where a nice feeling of urgency also gets injected into the system. It's not a question of speed more that the rhythmic qualities are well attended to. The two posthorn solos are superbly atmospheric and notice the violins in the passage between them and the splendid woodwind squeaks just prior to the second entry. It should go without saying Tennstedt manages the great rearing up of nature's power at the close of the movement with awesome effect. The fourth movement finds Ortrun Wenkel a more open and expressive soloist than we are used to and though I would have liked, once again, more contrast for the entry of the boys in the fifth movement they sing well. However, the real surprise and pleasure comes in the last movement where Tennstedt confounds expectations to deliver one of the best accounts I have heard. Too many conductors take the arrival of this movement as the signal to slow down, even seeming to try to outdo each other as to how slow they can take this music, some stringing it out into glacial progress. But this music is an anthem not a wake and Tennstedt keeps things moving forward so that the underlying tension is never allowed to flag and neither is the attention of the listener. I've heard accounts of this music where I have frankly become bored by it. By keeping his eye firmly on the closing pages and when these arrive delivering them without overheating the emotion, Tennstedt brings the work home on a really triumphant note. Not at all like Klaus Tennstedt, in fact.

With such a large work as the Third taking up most of the two discs it might be the case that the Fourth Symphony is overlooked and this would be a pity. Both the first and second movements see Tennstedt pressing forward in the vigorous passages so that when he relaxes in the more reflective ones he doesn't need to slow down too much to make the kind of contrast he seemed unable to make in the first movement of the Third. It's certainly an impressive and compelling approach. He is also blessed again with excellent playing from the LPO who by then were his to command. They are on their toes throughout for the engineers to capture every detail of their playing and I especially liked the passage between bars 221 and 238 in the first movement where Tennstedt conveys a feeling of spiralling out of control very well. He clearly sees the third movement as one of Mahler's greatest slow movements as he phrases it with a rich depth of tone from the orchestra. Later on his tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve in Mahler intrudes too much but it's always within the bounds of taste and great depth of feeling is conveyed. You can argue for a more detached and analytical approach, less mannered, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be involved and moved by this. But I think the last movement is far too dark-toned and serious for what Mahler had in mind. Tennstedt has slipped back into his old Third Symphony ways here as he seems determined not to break the mood he has established in the third movement whereas I'm convinced that is exactly what Mahler wants the conductor to do. The playing is superb but too straight-faced to convey any of the fun the words carry.

This will delight Tennstedt's many admirers and might even find favour with his detractors. There are some problems in the Third Symphony's first movement but the Fourth Symphony is only spoiled by too serious a view of the finale. Recommended with reservations.

Tony Duggan

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