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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 7 in E minor (1904-05)
rec. 23-27 June 2012, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany. Stereo/multi-channel
OEHMS CLASSICS OC652 [73:35]

Exactly nine months after setting down Maher’s Eight in the Kölner Philharmonie Markus Stenz and his orchestra returned there to record the Seventh Symphony, the work with which they closed their 2011/12 concert season. The finishing line is now getting closer for Stenz; we only await recordings of three symphonies: the Sixth, Ninth and Tenth - the latter in whatever form he chooses to present it. I hope Das Lied von der Erde may also be included. Stenz leaves Cologne in the summer of 2014, when he will have completed ten years with the Gürzenich-Orchester. It was made clear in the announcement of his departure that by the time he leaves their Mahler cycle will be complete. I see from Stenz’s website that he’s performing the Sixth in Cologne in November this year and that’s the last Mahler in his concert schedule with the orchestra for the coming season so presumably the other recordings needed to complete the cycle are already safely ‘in the can’.
 
The Seventh has long been considered the most problematic of Mahler’s symphonies and, speaking for myself, I find it not only the hardest to understand but also the hardest to love. I hasten to add that I view that as a failure on my part. However, I do feel that the symphony perhaps speaks less directly to us than do Mahler’s other symphonic works. The booklet note includes a quote in which Mahler described the symphony as one of “predominantly cheerful, humoristic content”. Was his tongue in his cheek when he made this comment or was he, perhaps, mentally comparing the new symphony with its grimly tragic predecessor? In passing, it’s rather remarkable that Mahler was sketching the two ‘Nachtmusiken’ movements at the same time as he was writing the finale of the Sixth. Returning to Mahler’s description of the Seventh as “predominantly cheerful” that’s not a view with which it is terribly easy to agree until we reach the boisterous finale. The symphony has been likened to a journey from night to day and that’s the analogy that I find most helpful in listening to the work.
 
Markus Stenz’s reading opens strongly; the rhythms are well defined and the baleful tenor horn is given good prominence. As this substantial movement unfolds Stenz brings out the grotesque and stentorian aspects of the music very successfully. Initially I wondered if sometimes, when Mahler’s mood relaxes and becomes more lyrical, Stenz is not a little too expansive - as in the calmer section of music between about 8:50 and 13:09. However, on reflection I think that’s just an impression; most conductors in my experience tend to take such passages broadly. What is beyond doubt, I think, is that the martial passages in this movement, of which there are many, are projected strongly and with due weight. This reading held my attention.
 
The first of the two ‘Nachtmusiken’ is a spooky march which several of Mahler’s associates, later compared to Rembrandt’s celebrated painting, The Night Watch. However, the Dutch composer Alphons Diepenbrock was surely right to point out that Mahler ‘cited the painting only as a point of comparison’. Diepenbrock went on to comment that the movement is ‘full of fantastic chiaroscuro - hence the Rembrandt comparison.’ Stenz and his top class orchestra bring out this “fantastic chiaroscuro” very well indeed in a performance that lets us hear all the piquancy of Mahler’s scoring. The rhythms are well articulated and between them the performers and the Oehms engineers achieve excellent clarity.
 
The third movement is well described in the notes as ‘a “danse macabre” of the strangest kind.’ The movement is marked Schattenhaft (‘shadowy”). The music is constantly restless and scurries along. Little musical figures or fragments that are often grotesque rush into the musical foreground and, just as quickly, recede from our consciousness. Stenz has shown regularly during this Mahler cycle that he has a very keen ear - not for nothing is he a noted exponent of contemporary music. That keen ear serves him very well in an excellent account of this movement which must be fiendishly difficult to balance and bring off.
 
After the Gothic scherzo the warmth of the Andante amoroso comes as something of a relief. This is done with finesse and affection though it’s a clear-eyed performance; the affection never teeters over the edge into sentimentality. Mahler’s delicate, often chamber-like textures are realised very well in this Cologne performance.
 
The Rondo finale has come in for a good deal of criticism over the years; some commentators have held that it’s a rather superficial let-down. In the wrong hands it can give the impression of unyielding and rather forced jollity but, as so often with Mahler, there’s an awful lot going on below the surface. Quite rightly, Stenz is unapologetic about the music and there are no half measures in his reading but, equally, he’s alive to the frequent changes in mood, often fleeting, that crop up in the movement. It seems that the Cologne orchestra revels in Mahler’s high spirits and virtuoso demands and the Rondo is often pretty riotous - indeed, garish at times. If this symphony is a journey from night to day then, by and large, we’ve now arrived in bright daylight; the baleful tenor horn and the dark martial rhythms of the first movement seem a long way in the distance, as Mahler surely intended. After we’ve experienced all the colours and good humour of the Rondo Stenz and his players bring the symphony home jubilantly with bells and brass heralding Mahler’s tumultuous if somewhat rhetorically overblown conclusion.
 
This is a pretty impressive reading of the Seventh and it’s a very good addition to Stenz’s Mahler cycle. I listened to the performance in conventional CD format and it seems to me that the Oehms engineers have provided bright, clean and clear sound which is well-suited to this score. I look forward to the concluding instalments in this Cologne Mahler series.
 
John Quinn 

Markus Stenz’s Mahler cycle on MusicWeb International 
Symphony No 1
Symphony No 2
Symphony No 3
Symphony No 4
Symphony No 5
Symphony No 8
Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn 


Masterworks index: Mahler Symphony No 7
 
Tony Duggan’s synoptic survey of recordings of Mahler’s Seventh



Experience Classicsonline