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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Markus Stenz
Rec. Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, February 2002. DDD
ABC CLASSICS ABC 476 102-4 [71’52"]

Markus Stenz has now been in charge of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for some seven years. He leaves this post in 2005. Already well known in the UK as a conductor, especially through his work with the London Sinfonietta, it would seem from this CD that he has moulded his Australian players into a more than respectable ensemble.

Mahler’s Fifth is, in some ways, my favourite among the canon and it has been fortunate on CD with several outstanding versions currently in the catalogue (and one or two others, notably Klaus Tennstedt’s superb live recording with the LPO from 1988, languishing in the vaults of the record companies.) My initial reaction on receiving this CD to review was "do we really need another Mahler 5th?" I’m bound to say that as I listened to the first movement this impression was reinforced for beside the likes of Tennstedt (the performance mentioned above), Bernstein (his 1987 live recording with the VPO for DG) or Barbirolli (1969 with the New Philharmonia for EMI) Stenz’s reading seemed to lack heft and punch. The movement is well played and details of dynamics, accents etc. are properly observed. However, this seems a rather cool, objective account. Two points in the performance seemed to me to illustrate that. Firstly, at the huge climax at figure 18 in the score (11’48") the whole orchestra is marked fff for the first time. In Bernstein’s reading this is an overwhelming moment, but not here. Again, at the very end of the movement the pay-off is a doom-laden sf pizzicato note on the lower strings. On the Bernstein and Barbirolli versions this almost sounds like an axe falling but the effect is much less dramatic with Stenz. So, if you want Mahler’s 5th to open with a highly charged reading of this funeral march you may be tempted to pass this recording by.

However, if you do so you will be missing quite a lot for, as the performance progresses, it becomes clear that Stenz has almost certainly made a conscious decision not to play all his cards too early and has deliberately avoided giving too much in the first movement.

His rendition of the second movement is, I think, entirely successful. The stormy passages are strongly projected but the slower, calmer sections (for example the passage at figure 5 in the score - from 1’18" here) are sensitively and atmospherically played. Small details register such as an important little figure, a mere three bars long, for two muted horns (6’33"). Some may feel that the heavy, foreboding passage just after figure 24 (11’39") is taken two slowly but the big chorale (from 12’44") is well handled. Here again, Stenz sensibly holds something in reserve, knowing that the true apotheosis of this chorale will not be reached until almost the very end of the symphony.

One interesting aspect of this performance is that, contrary to the picture on the front of the booklet, I’m sure, after listening through headphones, that Stenz has split his violins left and right. Once we reach the third movement with its more consistently light textures the benefits of this become clear. It’s a pity that the first horn player is uncredited for he or she gives a first rate performance of the crucial obbligato part. (Incidentally, though Simon Rattle’s Berlin recording disappointed me in many ways I felt that one major point in its favour was the separation of the solo horn player from the rest of his section. That doesn’t appear to happen here but since most other recordings adopt the conventional layout Stenz is not disadvantaged.). Throughout this long movement Stenz’s choice of tempi and his care for orchestral balance seem to me to be perfectly judged.

Stenz’s pacing for the adagietto steers a middle course. At 9’52" his basic speed is very similar to that adopted by Barbirolli (9’51") and Rattle (9’31"). At 11’13" and 11’21" respectively Tennstedt and Bernstein are, I think, slow almost to the point of self-indulgence (it may not be without significance that both are live recordings). At the other extreme Bruno Walter’s 1947 New York recording at a mere 7’35" is surely too fleet. Stenz’s pacing strikes me as pretty near ideal and he gets eloquent and responsive playing with the separation of violins once again paying dividends.

The finale reveals Mahler at his most unbuttoned and good-humoured. The performance here is lively and spirited, providing a splendid conclusion. There’s just one small drawback. The finale should follow the adagietto almost without a break. In practice two or three seconds of silence is the norm and perfectly acceptable. Here there’s a gap of 13 seconds. That might not sound much but when you’re waiting (and waiting!) for the horn note that heralds the finale it’s a long time and Mahler’s calculated effect is spoiled.

The recording took place in one of the orchestra’s regular venues. The sound is good. It’s clear and well balanced. The useful note and other documentation are in English only.

I couldn’t honestly say this recording would be my first choice; it doesn’t displace allegiance to Bernstein or Barbirolli, both of whom seem to me to penetrate much further under the skin of the music than any other conductor. Tennstedt and Barshai also lead very impressive accounts. However, in a very crowded and competitive field this version can be ranked highly. It has evidently been very well prepared and Markus Stenz clearly has something to communicate about this symphony. This CD provides an excellent souvenir of the partnership between this fine young German conductor and his Australian orchestra and I doubt that anyone purchasing it is likely to be disappointed.

John Quinn


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