This double centenary still has a few months to run and yet
there’s no let-up in the flood of new and reissued Mahler recordings.
A quick trawl of online retailers reveals, among others, a new
Mahler 6 from Pierre Boulez (Accentus), a live Mahler 3 from
Klaus Tennstedt (ICA Classics) and a Salzburg Resurrection
from James Levine (Orfeo). Of those I’ve already heard, Jonathan
Nott’s Bamberg Mahler 2 is the pick of the bunch – review
– with Tennstedt’s BBC Legends Mahler 1 not far behind (review).
And then there’s the Naxos Blu-ray of Antoni Wit’s Mahler
8 which, despite some technical issues, is a mandatory purchase
for all Mahlerians.
There have been notable disappointments too, but that’s inevitable
in one celebratory year, let alone two. Unwisely, some labels
have been quick to record/reissue Mahler discs from ensembles/conductors
with little or no affinity for these symphonies. For instance,
I admire much of what Vladimir Ashkenazy does in the concert
hall and on record, but his Eloquence Mahler 3 is an unmitigated
disaster. But, always ready to pick out new voices from the
competing babble, I was keen to hear Markus Stenz’s ‘Resurrection’,
especially as his Mahler 4 has garnered some good reviews. As
for the Gürzenich band, they really impressed me with their
recent SACD of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred (review).
This new ‘Resurrection’ is also a Super Audio recording, although
you’ll have to look hard to find the logo on the box. Mahler’s
extended funeral march starts well enough, but those agitated
strings lack essential thrust and weight. More worrying is Stenz’s
evident lack of dynamism, which means that Mahler’s wild excursions
and alarums count for precious little. And sonically this isn’t
in the same league as the Manfred I mentioned earlier;
it certainly isn’t as far-reaching or deep-digging as the sound
Tudor provided for Nott’s Mahler 2.
But it’s after that outburst at 10:45 that this performance
falls off the proverbial cliff; Stenz’s pacing becomes painfully
protracted, his phrasing wilful. Now comatose, now hyperactive,
the music veers erratically between poles. Indeed, one senses
that Stenz stretches this music way beyond its natural limits
and, like lemmings, the orchestra follow him over the precipice.
A pity, as they do play well at times. And then there’s that
downward figure at the close which – à la Simon Rattle
– is made to sound like a slow, agonised groan. And groan I
did, for this is just the kind of generalised, unsubtle Mahler
I can’t abide. The recent Jurowski ‘Resurrection’ irritated
me just as much, but there it’s the conductor’s brisk/brusque
approach that flattens contrasts and saps all dramatic tension
The lilting second movement isn’t quite so idiosyncratic, although
Stenz does tend to ‘lean into’ the rhythms too much for my tastes.
But despite some lovely string playing this music is devoid
of all charm; indeed, it’s hard to imagine a less congenial
or spontaneous Andante than this. The Scherzo is even less appealing,
with little of the light and shade, the quirks and quiddities,
that others find in these delectable tunes. Bass is surprisingly
ill-defined and high strings are hard-edged on both the Red
Book and Super Audio layers. But that matters far, far less
than the sense of routine run-through that blights this whole
‘Urlicht’ is one of the most luminous episodes in all Mahler,
and although Michaela Schuster’s sounds suitably limpid and
smooth of line this radiant, subtly nuanced little number seems
curiously detached. As for the orchestral paroxysm that follows
– not to mention those ferocious, timp-led crescendi
– they’re just over-managed and overblown. Somewhat belatedly,
Stenz conveys a sense of approaching apotheosis, but even that
disappears in the stifling banality that follows.
And it doesn’t get any better, either; tuttis are hard-pressed
and roughly driven and the music always falls back, enervated.
This symphony is robust enough to survive very different approaches,
but it tends to buckle under expressive overload, losing all
its structural integrity and cumulative power. That’s precisely
what happens here; even the first, hushed choral entry lacks
the usual frisson, with Oelze sounding somewhat uneven
alongside Schuster. The closing pages afford a modicum of excitement,
but there’s little of the elevation and catharsis one usually
feels at symphony’s end.
Given the surfeit of exceptional Mahler 2s in the catalogue,
Stenz’s ‘Resurrection’ needed to be very good indeed to even
rate a second listen. It isn’t, and it won’t be getting one