Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 1 in D major [52:56]
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. 3-5 July, 2011, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany. Stereo/multichannel
I’ve already reviewed the previous issues in Markus Stenz’s Mahler cycle from Cologne (review), including a particularly impressive Third Symphony (review). With this recording of the First Stenz completes his traversal of the ‘Wunderhorn’ symphonies.
The beginning of Mahler’s First must be very difficult for both the performers and the engineers to balance. When I first listened to this disc my impression was that the nature sounds from the woodwind were balanced a little too clearly and forwardly. I sampled a couple of other recordings taken at random from the shelves - Leonard Bernstein’s 1987 version made for DG with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in their home hall (review) and Bernard Haitink’s 2008 Chicago (review). Both these are the product of live performances whereas Stenz recorded under studio conditions but, arguably, that makes comparisons all the more interesting since in a live reading, even if there is patching from a rehearsal, there are fewer chances to get it right. Both of Stenz’s competitors seem to me to balance the opening pages less closely, less immediately so there’s more of a sense of mystery than Stenz achieves - and the little fanfares on the clarinets (at about 1:01 in the Stenz reading) are much woodier in tone and much more subtly played in Chicago. I suspect the issue here is that the OEHMS recording, splendidly clear and detailed though it is, does place the listener rather close to the orchestra - I noticed a similar thing when comparing the Stenz recording of the Fourth with George Szell’s masterly old recording.
Once we’re past those opening pages, which are very well played, it should be said, Stenz offers a clear-eyed, fresh reading. The episode that flows from the ‘Ging heut Morgen übers Feld’ melody flows very nicely, with innocent charm and Stenz imparts life and energy into the music. A little later (from about 8:23) the slower passage with its fragments of chirping themes is well balanced and controlled. However, I’m not so happy with Stenz’s way with the passage beginning at 13:35 where there’s menace in the bass of the orchestra in the lead-up to the brass fanfares (at 14:10) that presage the joyful coda. This short passage is taken too slowly and sounds both ponderous and portentous as a result. That’s a pity because the coda itself is fast and exhilarating.
The gawky scherzo is well sprung, the rhythms strongly articulated. The Ländler trio (3:20 - 5:46) is graceful and affectionate with some nice woodwind detail and string portamenti. The double bass solo at the start of the third movement is clean with no trace of wheeziness - some may regret that and feel it’s too cultured. Stenz‘s tempo is on the fleet side and I wonder if it’s not just a fraction too swift. The ‘Lindenbaum’ music (5:06) is delicately played but again I think the speed is just a little too brisk, the interpretation a bit too clear-eyed. Stenz seems to be in tune with the irony in this movement but to miss - or skate over - some of its feeling.
The finale bursts into life but doesn’t really explode as it does with some other interpreters. At this point Haitink is also a bit inclined to underplay things but, as if to compensate, his Chicagoans bring a power and weight of tone that their Cologne colleagues can’t quite match. And no one does it like Lenny! The rhetorical flamboyance of his opening has the music leaping off the page - and the Concertgebouw players yield little or nothing to their Chicago rivals when it comes to orchestral power and virtuosity. However, here we are comparing Stenz with an exceptional interpretation - and with a white knuckle ride that may not be to all tastes. His performance is exciting and, as the movement unfolds, has much to commend it. The long, romantic D flat melody (from 3:41) is beautifully spun at first and gradually builds to a strong climax. The return of the opening maelstrom (7:12) is fast and furious and Stenz is very impressive in the following pages. The passage from about 10:50 to 15:20, during which Mahler revisits both the material from the very opening of the symphony and also the finale’s D flat melody is well done; Stenz generates a good atmosphere hereabouts and then the short string fugal passage at 15:20 is fast and urgent. The final few minutes blaze and the bass drum roll that underpins the closing bars adds an exciting point of detail.
There’s much to appreciate in this recording of the First symphony even if it doesn’t challenge the very best in a crowded and competitive field. It’s a good addition to Markus Stenz’s cycle.
John Quinn  

A good addition to Markus Stenz’s Mahler cycle. 

Masterwork Index: Mahler 1