Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection (1894) [82:17]
Christine Oelze (soprano)
Michaela Schuster (mezzo)
Kartäuserkantorei Köln
Bach-Verein Köln
Madrigalchor der Hochschule für Musik Köln
Kammerchor der Hochschule für Musik Köln
Figuralchor Bonn
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. 23-27 October 2010, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany. Stereo/multichannel
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 647 [21:42 + 60:35]

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 (review).

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 that blights this whole enterprise.

‘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 to even rate a second listen. It isn’t, and it won’t be getting one from me.

Dan Morgan

Sense of routine blights this whole enterprise.