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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection (1894) [83'44]
Elizabeth Whitehouse (soprano); Bernadette Cullen (mezzo);
Melbourne Chorale and Symphony Orchestra/Markus Stenz.
rec. live, Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne, 2-4 December 2004.
ABC CLASSICS 476 7738 [32'10 + 51'34]

This is a recording of a live 'Gala Farewell Concert' to Markus Stenz, who was leaving Australia to move to Cologne - where he was General Music Director in the 2004/5 season. Spread over two discs, one cannot help wondering why ABC put the first two movements on CD1, and the rest on CD2. Mahler suggests, I believe, a short break between the extended first movement and the rest of the symphony.

The performance itself edges towards excellence at times; at others it is merely accurate. There is a sense of the musicians enjoying themselves (as any brass player ...) and everyone does seem to give of their best. The off-stage balances of the final movement are very effective spatially, as well as being exceptionally well played.

The recording is slightly blurry at times, but copes well with the major dynamic events. These comments might strike the listener most forcefully right at the very outset, where a hint of muffle to the cellos and basses does not bode well. However, in general, things are caught well; try for example the tender pianissimo violins around three minutes in.

Most importantly, Stenz has a fine sense of the music's architecture that ensures involved listening at any point. It must certainly have been quite an occasion on the night(s). Nevertheless there is some pedestrianism that comes across on disc (around 9'40-50 particularly). Stenz chooses to ignore the Luftpausen around 13'50, which I personally found rather distracting - there is just the impression of ploughing through.

The second movement, despite some solo contributions, sound rather lukewarm. Rehearsal care is clear in the string balancing and there is much delicacy, but the overall impression was of hearing this movement as an entity in its own right rather than as part of a larger canvas. The crisp timpani and superb trumpets of the third movement make for the most complete performance yet, a very exciting reading that tests the recording – a test it passes with flying colours.

The brass alas do not quite convey the gravitas of the situation in the fourth movement (the vocal 'Urlicht'), tending rather towards the mundane. Bernadette Cullen starts well but goes on to sound slightly out of control at 'Da kam ich an einen breiten Weg' and following.

The famous finale begins with good string definition at its opening, and the above-mentioned offstage effects make their point extremely well. This is, in fact, the best movement. There is real sense of organic growth here. The percussion crescendo, by the way, is good but certainly not neighbour-complaint-inducing. At the other end of the dynamic spectrum, the choral entry is certainly pp to the power n. The exhortation to 'Prepare thyself' ('Bereite dich') is alas half-hearted - what a time to not go for it! At least the command to 'Auferstehen' carries conviction, as does the orchestral coda. The 'Bravo's from the audience confirm the impact at the time.

Booklet notes are very fine indeed.

No doubt that this is an important event well preserved. That said, this is not a Second that will go down in the pantheon of greats - not by a long chalk.

 

Colin Clarke



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