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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1908-09) [78:12]
Symphony No. 10 in F-sharp major, Adagio (1910, unfinished)* [23:19]
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. January, 2014; *June 2011, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany. Stereo/multi-channel
OEHMS CLASSICS OC654 SACD [78:12 + 23:21]

Hot on the heels of Markus Stenz’s fine recording of the Sixth Symphony (review) here is the final instalment, I understand, of his Cologne Mahler cycle. Unlike the Sixth and the previous release in the series, the Seventh, which were live recordings these performances are not specifically badged as live recordings. I presume they were set down under studio conditions.

Stenz’s account of the Ninth is very good indeed though it’s been interesting to compare and contrast his reading with Sir Simon Rattle’s live Berlin recording. The late Tony Duggan thought very highly of Rattle’s version (review); indeed, it was his enthusiastic appraisal of the Rattle performance that persuaded me that I needed to add yet another Mahler Ninth to my collection and I’ve never regretted the decision. Stenz and Rattle adopt quite different approaches to the Ninth and in making a few comparisons I must make it clear I’m not seeking to suggest one is ‘better’ than the other: both execute their respective visions of the score very convincingly indeed.

Stenz is quite relaxed in the opening pages of the first movement; there’s a noticeable degree of warmth, I find, and that is evident elsewhere in the movement. Rattle is somewhat slower in his pacing and there’s more tension in the reading. In fact, overall there’s greater tension and angst in Rattle’s overall conception as compared with Stenz – not all collectors will think that’s necessarily a good thing. Between 6:05 and 7:01 in Stenz’s performance there’s a passage of dark music in which the ‘irregular heartbeat’ rhythm is very important. Stenz moves the music along here so the section is not as ominous as I’ve heard some conductors make it. Rattle is firmly in the ‘ominous’ camp: the comparable passage in his performance (6:45 – 8:10) is steadier in pace and the music sounds starker. It’s noticeable too that, as is often his wont, Rattle gets his players to make the most of accents. In the pages that follow (to 8:40) Stenz gets some wonderfully quiet playing from his orchestra, which is symptomatic of the top-class playing that’s to be heard in his performance. Those subdued dynamics make the vehement outburst that comes shortly after (10:12–11:25) all the more telling. Rattle’s rendition of that outburst is deeply disturbing. In some ways the pages that I’ve just described sum up the Stenz performance: it’s a fine reading of marked contrasts, his conception aided by the splendid playing of his orchestra and the excellent and detailed recorded sound.

The second movement is marked Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers (‘In the tempo of a leisurely Ländler’). To be honest, I wouldn’t say Stenz begins the movement in a leisurely fashion: his tempo is quite nimble and not as rugged as some conductors make it. Rattle, by contrast, is much more sturdy. The spikier section (at 2:23) is normally appreciably quicker but with Stenz the difference between the two speeds is marginal. I have to say I’m not entirely convinced by his treatment of this movement. It’s played marvellously but I think a touch of earthiness is missing.

I don’t think his reading of the Rondo-Burleske is as acerbic as some that I’ve heard. The music sounds brilliant, which is fine up to a point but this is music that should be right in the listener’s face, spitting and snarling, and I don’t quite get that here. Rattle is a little steadier and there’s a definite dark side to the music in his hands. The slow trumpet-led passage which foreshadows the finale (from 5:43) is radiant in this Cologne performance, as is the case when we hear the material again. The final throes of Stenz’s Rondo (from 10:05) are very exciting. Rattle takes a steadier view, investing the music with rather more weight though without a loss of fire. He really whips up the pace for the last few pages, more so than Stenz, making the conclusion seem more driven and brutal than is the case in Cologne.

Stenz starts the finale beautifully, his strings really singing for him. Rattle is broader – in fact he’s daringly slow - and, if anything, the strings of the Berliner Philharmoniker are even richer. The booklet note refers to this movement as a ‘deeply elegiac song of farewell’. That may be so but Stenz doesn’t seem to see it in quite that way. There’s passion in his reading at times and I feel there’s a sense of regret for what might have been but Stenz keeps the emotions under sensible control and I rather like that. Those who prefer an objective approach to Mahler will approve. Rattle is more searching, I feel, and that’s not just a function of his more expansive speed. At 11:25 Stenz moves the music forward. When Rattle reaches the same spot (at 12:51) he keeps the speed rock-steady, which I always prefer. In Stenz’s hands the movement’s great climax is truly heartfelt and then he starts the long winding down to the end. The closing passage for strings only (from 19:33) has a chamber-like delicacy and the strings of the Gürzenich-Orchester play with maximum delicacy and sensitivity, enabling Stenz to bring the work to a beautiful, hushed conclusion. Rattle, with the Berliner Philharmoniker at his disposal, is magnificent here but, even more than Stenz, his ending is about more than sheer refinement and beauty of tone. Coming at the end of his performance of this great Adagio you feel with Rattle that you’re getting a glimpse of the Beyond.

As you’ll have gathered my personal preference between these two versions is for Rattle’s account. However, there’s more than one way to approach Mahler’s Ninth and there’s a great deal about Markus Stenz’s conception of the score that I admire very much indeed, especially in the outer movements, while the execution of the symphony by the Gürzenich-Orchester is as fine as anything we’ve heard in this cycle. The orchestra certainly give their departing chief their very best.

Markus Stenz, like several other leading Mahler conductors, has decided against including one of the performing versions of the Tenth symphony in his cycle. We must respect his view while registering some disappointment, on the strength of his performance of the opening Adagio, that he reached that decision. This is a very convincing – and very well played – account of the movement and I do hope that one day Stenz may change his stance and conduct one of the performing editions of the symphony, preferably the one by Deryck Cooke. I’m even more regretful, however, that it seems that this Stenz cycle will not include a recording of Das Lied von der Erde. That’s a great shame.

However, with or without Das Lied this has been a very good Maher symphony cycle. I would judge that the best of the set have been the Third, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth. This new recording of the Ninth is impressive and anyone who has been collecting the series can rest assured that the final instalment in this Cologne cycle will not disappoint.

John Quinn

Markus Stenz’s Maher cycle on MusicWeb International:-
Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 6
Symphony No. 7
Symphony No. 8
Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Masterwork Index: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Tony Duggan’s Survey of recordings of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony