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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
German texts included
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 647 [21:42 + 60:35]

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Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1901)
Christine Oelze (soprano)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. 23-26 August and 28-29 December, 2009, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany. Stereo/multichannel
German texts included

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Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-02)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. 26-29, January, 2009, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany. Stereo/multichannel

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Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-1901)
Christine Oelze (soprano)
Michael Volle (baritone)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. 23-26 August and 28-29 December, 2009, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany. Stereo/multichannel
German texts included

Experience Classicsonline

Having been impressed with Markus Stenz’s recent recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony (review) I’ve now been able to catch up with the previous issues in his evolving cycle. I decided to audition the symphonies in the order of composition so I began my listening with the Resurrection, which has already been appraised by my colleague, Dan Morgan.
The recorded sound is clear and clean – I listened to all these discs as CDs – and the orchestra plays very well. The opening pages of the first movement are impressive; there’s suitable weight in the playing. However, I began to think, as the movement unfolded, that the music wasn’t characterised as sharply as I’d like. For all the virtues of the playing – and they are many – the performance seemed to lack the necessary element of wildness; for example, in the march episodes the strings don’t dig in to the extent that one hears on the most exciting versions. I wasn’t stirred by this performance to the degree that one should be. Perhaps my view of Stenz’s performance of this movement and of the work as a whole was coloured because I listened to this disc only a few days after attending a viscerally exciting live rendition conducted by Andris Nelsons (review). There’s a note in the booklet for Stenz’s recording of the Fifth Symphony that explains that his Mahler recordings are being made under studio conditions in the immediate aftermath of concert performances and Stenz lays out his reasons – which are cogent – for recording this way rather than taping the concerts. As we shall see, he gets very compelling results in the Fifth but I wonder if the Second, arguably the most theatrical Mahler symphony, might have benefited from the adrenalin surge that distinguishes the best live recordings. At the very end of the first movement Stenz is one of those conductors – Rattle is another – who takes the big descending figure at a slow speed; I much prefer an up-tempo headlong plunge into the abyss.
Stenz’s way with the second movement is a bit plain for my taste; I’d have liked him to be a little more relaxed and charming and more generous with the rubato in the way that Andris Nelsons was. Oddly, he moulds the music more affectionately when the cello melody appears (at 3:02) but this approach doesn’t last long. It’s all a bit too matter-of-fact for my taste. The third movement is well played also but I’ve heard performances with more sardonic bite. Michaela Schuster offers poised and polished singing in ‘Urlicht’. However, she seems a bit detached, notably at such points as ‘Ich bin von Gott’ where more overt expressiveness is needed.
The finale is good without being earth-shattering. One point of detail is worthy of comment. About a third of the way into the movement there are two massive percussion rolls. The first of these is more extended than the second and I have never heard it rendered the way Stenz does it. Not only does it start absolutely at the edge of audibility – as it should – but it is hugely elongated and lasts for nearly a minute (9:35 – 10:25). I believe this approach may be justified by the score, where the roll is marked with a pause and a note instructing that the roll should grow slowly, but Stenz’s treatment of it is daring. The finale as a whole is well played but, to my ears, lacks a bit of adrenalin; does Stenz control proceedings too tightly? The große Appell is handled well both by the conductor and the engineers. However, a few moments earlier (at 14:50) the offstage trumpets and drums are surely too distant – they are almost inaudible. The choir is good and I liked the silvery tone of Christine Oelze. The closing fortissimo passage – ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n’ – is impressive though it didn’t make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as the best competitors do.
In summary, this is a good account of ‘Resurrection’ but Claudio Abbado (review), Simon Rattle (review) and the visionary Klaus Tennstedt (review) all dig deeper, I think, and set the pulse racing faster. Tellingly, perhaps, all three of these recordings derive from concert performances.
The opening to the reading of the Fourth Symphony may put you off, as it nearly did with me. Stenz takes the first three measures - the sleigh bells and chirping flutes - at a surprisingly deliberate speed, slower than I can recall ever hearing it, and then immediately after the rallentando he establishes a much swifter and more conventional tempo. Turn to George Szell’s great 1965 recording – or almost any other I know – and you’ll find the speed is identical on either side of the rallentando, as it surely should be. I don’t understand what Stenz is doing in these first three bars and it’s all the more odd because when those bars are reprised at various times in the movement he never reverts to this slow tempo. However, as I say, don’t be put off by this quirky incident because thereafter Stenz leads a good and enjoyable account of the movement. Once we’ve got past that initial moment I find his tempi – and his changes of tempi – convincing. He and his orchestra inject a good spring into the music’s steps, the textures are nice and airy and there’s a pleasing outdoor feel to everything.
The second movement comes off pretty well; the music sounds spicy and spiky and there’s a good contribution from the solo violinist. The heavenly slow movement is also a success; the performance is restful, the music well shaped, and the big climax opens up nicely. I enjoyed this very much. There’s a problem with the finale, however – at least to my ears. Christine Oelze is balanced too forwardly and as a result it sounds as if she’s singing too loudly – actually, she may be singing too loudly at times. I miss a sense of enchantment; instead it all sounds a bit matter-of-fact. Turn to the Szell recording, still a classic after forty-seven years, and things are much more satisfactory. For a start, there’s more of a concert hall ambience to the sound – you feel as if you’re sitting in the middle stalls whereas OEHMS place you in one of the front rows. More than that, however, Judith Raskin is better integrated into the overall sound picture and she sings with an air of innocence and quiet rapture that Miss Oelze rather lacks. Furthermore, Szell adopts a slightly more relaxed pace, even in the faster passages, and amongst other things this means that his singer can enunciate the words more comfortably, especially in the quicker stretches of music. When we get to the last stanza there’s an atmosphere of hushed magic under Szell that’s not really present in the Stenz recording. So, taken overall, the newcomer has much to commend it but doesn’t quite match the very best.
The Fifth Symphony was the first to be recorded by Stenz and the Gürzenich-Orchester and it’s a fitting starting point for this cycle since it was this very orchestra, under Mahler’s own direction, that gave the première of the symphony on 18 October, 1904. In this symphony among the many conductors with whom Stenz comes into competition is himself for he recorded the work back in 2002, when he was Principal Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and I reviewed that disc. That earlier performance played for 71:52, which is quicker than many versions, and I was rather surprised to find that in this new performance Stenz shaves off almost four minutes, bringing the symphony in at 68:03. That’s decidedly fleet and I looked out a couple of favourite versions from my collection, namely the famous Barbirolli/New Philharmonia account from 1969 (EMI) and Bernstein’s live 1987 recording made for DG in Frankfurt with the Vienna Philharmonic. These come in at 74:29 and 75:02 respectively. These timings seem to suggest undue haste on Stenz’s part, certainly in 2009. Then I remembered the very first complete recording of the work, made in New York by Bruno Walter in 1947 (review). Walter comes in at an incredible 61:04. Now it may well be, as the late Tony Duggan suggested in his magisterial survey of recordings of the symphony, that the speeds reflected, at least in part, the need to accommodate the work onto 78 rpm sides. However, Walter makes sense of the symphony, even at these tempi, and surely he would not have condoned a release that was so fast as to be untrue to his view of the work?. It may interest readers to see the comparative timings for the various movements.

Conductor Movt. 1 2 3 4 5 Total
Barbirolli (1969) 13:48 15:14 18:04 9:52 17:27 74:29
Bernstein (1987) 14:32 14:59 19:02 11:13 15:00 75:02
Stenz (2002) 13:34 15:56 17:42 9:52 14:37 71:52
Stenz (2009) 12:06 14:51 17:09 8:42 14:46 68:03
Walter (1947) 11:47 12:32 15:03 7:38 15:42 60:51

Judged by the stopwatch alone, Walter offers Stenz a precedent for a sub-70 minute traversal of the score, though I’m not sure I’d want to listen to the work played the Walter way every day, bracing though it is. Notice also how Stenz’s new recording is at least one minute quicker than his earlier effort in three of the work’s five movements. However, moving away from the tyranny of the stopwatch, how does Stenz’s new performance measure up? Well, in summary, I think it measures up pretty well, though if you insist on having a high-octane and/or high emotional ride through the score then you’re likely to find the richly involving Barbirolli or Bernstein – or several other conductors, such as Tennstedt - more convincing.
In the first movement I like the way Stenz lays out the opening march; his approach is grave but not so much so as to risk getting bogged down. The succeeding stormy episode is turbulent and wild – more so than in 2002 – and the speed is very fast, faster than Walter’s pace. It’s very exciting. I find Stenz very convincing in the remainder of the movement though, as in 2002, I wish he’d invested the final dull pizzicato note with more weight; it should sound more doom-laden than it does. I like performances in which the second movement starts with scarcely a break. That’s not quite achieved here; there’s a gap of 11 seconds. The music gets off to a turbulent start – Walter also drives it hard - and the performance is sharply profiled. When the long cello recitative passage arrives (4:13) Stenz is very pensive in his approach and some may find this stretch of music is too drawn out. Overall, however, this is a trenchant, gripping traversal of the movement with some powerful orchestral playing.
I felt that rubato was missing from Stenz’s account of the second movement in the ‘Resurrection’ symphony; happily, things go better in the Scherzo of the Fifth. I enjoyed this performance, which captures the exuberance of much of Mahler’s writing. The important obbligato horn part is very well played; indeed, the whole horn section is on fine form. Overall, this is a vital and outgoing performance of the movement and the conclusion is absolutely exhilarating. Stenz’s account of the celebrated Adagietto is a flowing one, though Walter lingers even less. It’s fairly commonplace nowadays to find conductors taking well over ten minutes to play this music. The late Michael Steinberg had an interesting theory that this expansive approach really took off when Leonard Bernstein conducted the piece at the funeral of Robert Kennedy in 1968 (though, actually, Bernstein took 11:02 over the movement in his 1965 recording so he was already an expansive interpreter of the music before that funeral.) Be that as it may, we are so used to slow traversals of this music these days that a fairly fleet performance, such as Stenz’s, comes as a bit of a surprise. However, if you subscribe to the persuasive argument advanced by Gilbert Kaplan that the music is a love-song to Alma and not a Death in Venice-style lament then a flowing tempo makes sense. I find Stenz persuasive and I don’t think he short changes the emotional side.
The finale contains some of the most high spirited music in all Mahler – it’s almost as if, having dispatched the love letter to Alma, he’s celebrating. The present performance is an ebullient one; listening to it you feel that we’ve journeyed from the darkness of the opening funeral march to the sunlit uplands. When the chorale that we first encountered – prematurely? – in the second movement reappears it’s a glorious and satisfying moment before Stenz whips up his orchestra into a helter-skelter dash for the finishing line.
I’m certainly not about to jettison my recordings by Barbirolli and Bernstein – nor Tennstedt, for that matter. However, captured in vivid sound this Stenz recording is a very fine one to which I’ll return with pleasure. It’s splendidly played and the performance is full of energy and the conductor catches the various moods in the symphony very well.
Mahler orchestrated twelve of his Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn and this OEHMS album adds two more in the shape of the finale from the Fourth Symphony – I’m pretty sure it’s the same recording; certainly the sessions were contemporaneous – and ‘Urlicht’ from the Second Symphony, here sung by Christine Oelze in the usual key even though she’s not a mezzo. Michael Volle makes a strong impression. He is characterful in ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’, an orchestral expansion of which found its way into the Second Symphony. He’s even better in the military songs, such as ‘Die Tambourgsell’, the tale of the drummer boy awaiting execution – Stenz’s accompaniment to this is excellent too. Volle also excels in ‘Revelge’, which he sings with fine swagger and bravado; the orchestral scoring is, once again, very well touched in, not least in the ghostly prelude to and accompaniment of the last stanza. Volle also sings ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’; here I admired the contrasts he brings to the vocal line and his impressive top register.
Christine Oelze, well though she sings, doesn’t fire the listener’s imagination to quite the same degree, I find, though others may well find more in her performances. One of the songs allotted to her is ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’. Sometimes this is sung as a duet and it’s presented on this way on the 1968 Schwarzkopf/Fischer-Dieskau recording (EMI), conducted by George Szell. It works well as a duet and I think Szell touches in the accompaniment more imaginatively – perhaps helped by the slightly greater distancing on the EMI sound. Oelze sings expressively, though here and elsewhere I didn’t find that her words were always clear – and I’m not talking just about when she’s singing in her top register. She’s suitably pert in ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ and, singing in duet with Volle, she catches the playful side of ‘Verlor’ne Müh!’ very well. Although she doesn’t have quite the mezzo timbre she is more convincing in ‘Urlicht’ than I would have expected a soprano to be although I didn’t find her any less detached than Michaela Schuster seemed to be in the recording of the Second Symphony discussed above.
These are enjoyable accounts of Mahler’s songs. The reason I ended up doing a bit of comparison with the Szell recording was somewhat inadvertent. I took that disc off the shelves in order to follow the words in English. As with all these discs, OEHMS provide no English translation of the sung texts, which is a serious problem for non-German speakers faced with fourteen lieder. That omission is all the more baffling when all the rest of the booklet is in German and English: goodness knows what they’ll do when Stenz reaches the Eighth Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde! It’s a serious drawback and I hope it will be rectified for future releases.
There are ups and downs in Stenz’s Mahler cycle to date but given the reach and complexity of these scores I think it’s expecting a lot for a single conductor to be equally successful throughout all of Mahler’s works. However, there’s a good deal to admire in each of the discs that have been issued to date – the First Symphony is the latest release and has just arrived for review. On the evidence of what I’ve heard so far Markus Stenz is a pretty good Mahler conductor – and, at his best, in the Third and Fifth Symphonies, a very good one indeed – and he’s working with a very good orchestra. This cycle will be worth keeping a careful eye on as it progresses.
John Quinn






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