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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 [88'31]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony No 5 [28'42]²
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Symphony No 4 [58'34"]³
Diana Eustrati (alto)
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Eugen Szenkár
rec. 5 March, 1951, Köln
² Berlin Staatskapelle/Eugen Szenkár.
rec. 15 and 16 June, 1928, Berlin.
³ Christiane Sorrell (soprano)
Symphonieorchester der Stadt Düsseldorf/Eugen Szenkár
rec. live 13 May 1960, Düsseldorf
ADD (mono)
ARCHIPHON ARC136/38 [3 CDs: 53:21 + 68: 36 + 59:57]

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Eugen Szenkár is famous for having been scolded by Dr Konrad Adenauer in 1926. Szenkár had premiered Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin, and the music caused a furore. Dr Adenauer, then the local Mayor, said "Szenkár, that piece of filth must go!" before banning further performances. And the composer himself, oblivious to the near riot around him, grumbled "Eugen, on page 34, I specified mezzo-forte for the clarinet! I could not hear it!".

Szenkár, like Jascha Horenstein, was forced out of Europe by the Nazis – to Russia in 1934, to South America in 1938. Hence, he did not capture the limelight, even though he premiered many works, notably those of Bartók. This recording is a chance to hear what he was like as conductor. Recordings, however, give only a distorted image of how music was received. Szenkár’s Mahler Third may only be the second recording, made a mere six months after Scherchen’s, but the symphony was well known in music circles. It was a particular favourite of Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Mengelberg. What a great loss to posterity neither recorded it! Moreover, Mahler’s music did not go into an eclipse after his death. Various different performing traditions evolved with different conductors. Mengelberg started the seminal Mahler festivals in 1920, Schuricht in Wiesbaden in 1923, and Szenkár played most of the symphonies in 1926. This recording, therefore, is a snapshot of how one conductor felt about this symphony from the perspective of one who’d known the work well, decades before the big surge in Mahler’s popularity after the 1960s.

When Richard Strauss conducted this symphony, the marches made him think of socialist workers, marching in solidarity. Alma Mahler also said that her husband walked alongside a worker’s procession – he was known to have voted socialist. Szenkár’s marches capture that proletarian feel – real marcher's brass, these, played by musicians who had heard a lot of marches in their time, both socialist and national socialist. There is a real grimness to their playing, which even goes beyond Mahler's exhortation "roh dreinblasen" (raw and crudely blown) . One of the horns manages a bizarre, almost jazz-like flavouring. Szenkár keeps a solid, steady rhythm which underpins the different sections in the Erste Abteilung. There are few dramatic contrasts. Even the massed horn fanfare towards the end doesn't shake the sense of relentless marching. This is a very "military" reading, good at capturing "Das Gesindel" (the rabble) with its resonant bass drums and lack of dramatic contrast, even in the famous eight horn fanfare. It doesn't, however, quite capture the sense of Pan calling the world into exuberant, creative anarchy which was central to Mahler's conception.

The second and third movements are played relatively straightforwardly. Szenkar doesn't make much of the savage irony in the Ablösung sections which do so much to give the symphony its characteristic black humour. However, the posthorn interlude is bittersweet and nostalgic, heard as if from a distance both in space and time. The finale is played through quickly, hardly evoking the horror that Mahler perceived below the surface. Given the gravitas of Szenkár's approach, much might be expected of the critical "O Mensch !". Indeed, the Diana Eustrati, the Greek alto, makes this perhaps the most successful part of this performance. She sings with dignity, infusing real sincerity into " Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit". The boy's choir is also excellent – bursting with joyous confidence and exhilaration, a counterpoint to the dionysian march in the first movement. Eustrati's voice contrasts well against the background of bimm-bamms. Even the orchestra, for once, joins in the exuberance. The final movement draws together the reverence of "O Mensch" and the optimism of the choir, in a shimmering contemplation of bliss. Szenkár's steadiness helps weave a texture where all the elements balance to create a seamless feeling of light.

Mahler's Third might logically be paired with Beethoven's Sixth, but here we make do with Szenkár's recorded legacy and get Beethoven's Fifth. Although this was made in 1928, the recording is surprisingly unclouded by the usual blips and clicks, except in the second part, although at times it sounds like the recording was made in a box. The performance is also full of life and vigour, hurtling along at a heady pace. Szenkár again seems to have an affinity for large brass, and they give him wonderful, full-bodied playing. If this was how well Szenkár was conducting in his prime, one regrets all the more the years of exile that cut him off from the mainstream of western European and North American music. Had he but emigrated westwards instead of to Stalinist Russia!

Charm exudes from Szenkár's rendition of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. It's a confident, sunny reading, where the conductor gives full rein to the lush sweeps of the strings. The first two movements flow lyrically, with great spirit. This is live, and feels live. The beauty of the adagio isn't disturbed by much sense of unease even though the emotional temperature has been toned down. Mahler told Bruno Walter that this movement was like the half smile on the statue of an ancient saint, remembering a past life sublimated by spiritual distance. To reach this point, the saint sacrificed life. Szenkár creates a confident crescendo at the end, and the harp and strings soar upwards and outwards. Christiane Sorell is definitely an enthusiastic singer and her voice is very clearly recorded, somewhat to the detriment of the orchestra. It's a pleasure to hear a boisterous, earthy singer in the final movement. Sorell certainly sings as if she really enjoys the company in Heaven and the gluttony. She is so uplifting that you can forgive the many moments when the tessitura is too high and her voice wobbles with strain. In this version, the singer is the gutsy human counterpart to the saint of the Ruhevoll, so any hint of imperfection can be taken as stemming from other parts of Mahler's work which contrast the sublime and the proletarian. Sometimes it's nice to listen to something that can raise a smile of happiness.

Anne Ozorio

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