Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 3 in D minor (1896) [94:03]
Michaela Schuster (alto)
Mädchen und Knaben der Chöre am Kölner Dom; Damenchor der Oper Köln
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. 4-6 July, 2010, KölnerPhilharmonie
German texts included
OEHMS CLASSICS SACD OC648 [33:25 + 60:38]
This is the fifth Mahler recording from Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. Previous instalments in what, presumably, is an evolving cycle have comprised the Second Symphony (review), the Fourth (OC 649), the Fifth (OC 650) and Lieder aus ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’(OC 657). As can be seen, only one of those releases has come our way for review and I noticed - after listening to this recording of the Third - that Dan Morgan, who knows his Mahler, was unimpressed by Stenz’s traversal of the Resurrection. On the other hand, several years ago I was quite impressed by a recording that Stenz made of the Fifth Symphony during his time as Chief Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (review).
The first disc contains the huge first movement. Stenz launches it at a cracking - but not excessive - pace and the horns make a strong impact. The traversal of the movement that follows is a very good one indeed, helped by incisive orchestral playing that’s excellent in every way. The playing is reported in a very fine recording that is clear and detailed; I listened to these SACDs as conventional CDs, by the way. There’s a splendid, imposing trombone solo (from 6:54) in which the uncredited player displays a fine sense of rhetoric. His other extended solos are equally good.
To my way of thinking Stenz doesn’t put a foot wrong during this long movement, He displays a firm grip on the music and responds well to its many changes of mood and tone. The martial sections have tremendous swagger but the many delicate passages come off equally well - sample the duet between horn and principal violin around 19:00. I’d say that Stenz’s interpretation combines thrust and finesse and he brings the movement home with a headlong account of the hedonistic final pages.
His tempo for the second movement is perhaps just a tiny fraction too steady - but we’re talking fine margins here. Stenz gets some really pointed and delicate playing from the orchestra and the interpretation has the requisite charm. The scherzando third movement is another success. Once again, much of the playing is razor-sharp. The famous post-horn solos, delightfully distanced, are beautifully played, the string accompaniment is super-soft. The nostalgic mood is caught just as it should be.
In the fourth movement the soft dark hues of the orchestra make a good impression. Michaela Schuster is a fine, expressive soloist who does just enough with the music but, thankfully, no more; she allows Mahler to speak for himself. Stenz gets his oboe and cor anglais players to deliver upward slurred portamenti as has become the fashion among some conductors in recent years - Rattle was the first to do it in my experience. It may be “authentic” but it’s not an effect that I enjoy. However, this isn’t enough to mar a good account of the movement. In the short movement that follows the ladies and boys sing with vigour and freshness and Miss Schuster’s contribution is again good.
In the long-breathed adagio finale the Cologne strings really distinguish themselves with rich, expressive playing and when their colleagues in other sections of the band join in it’s clear they’re not going to be outdone. Stenz paces and controls the movement expertly, building it patiently. At 15:54 when the soft, shining brass take up the burden of the movement the music sounds wonderful and from 18:22 the movement moves to a majestic apotheosis.
Let’s not beat about the bush. I think this is a tremendous performance, superbly played and marvellously recorded. It’s one of the best Mahler Thirds that I’ve heard for a very long time. In a long list of distinguished recordings - this symphony has been lucky on disc - the best I’ve come across are those conducted by Bernstein - his CBS/Sony recording - (review); by Horenstein for Unicorn Kanchana (the release reviewed here was unauthorised, it seems, and has been withdrawn but the view of the performance itself, splendidly recorded by Unicorn, remains valid - it is however available as a download from the Classical Shop); and by Tennstedt (review). Sadly, I’ve not yet seen and heard the highly-regarded Abbado recording (review). This new Stenz version may not supplant those recordings at the top of the tree but it deserves to be ranked with them.
I’ll be interested to hear more Mahler from this team. If they can sustain this level of quality their cycle could be one with which to be reckoned. By the way, I’m mystified as to why Oehms can provide a booklet in which everything is in German and English and then omit an English translation of the sung texts.
John Quinn  

This new Mahler Third deserves to be ranked with the best.