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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection) (1888-94) [79:38]
Stefania Woytowicz (soprano)
Anny Delorie (contralto)
Kölner Rundfunkchor
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/William Steinberg
rec. Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne, September 1965
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5001 [79:38]

When I began exploring symphonic music as a teenager, I happened to discover a number of recordings by conductor William Steinberg, including symphonies of Beethoven and Rachmaninov. I played the discs repeatedly to the point of "imprinting" on the performances, enthralled as I was by their combination of forward drive, alert rhythms, and precise ensemble. I still admire those musical traits, though I don't uniformly admire all of Steinberg's work. He was a Toscanini protégé, and, in the wrong repertoire - as in his studio Bruckner Seventh - his impersonal clarity could suggest a Toscanini without the personality.

The first movement of this concert Resurrection suggests that Mahler, too, was part of the wrong repertoire. To be sure, the bristling opening immediately seizes the listener's attention, which holds as the music moves straightforwardly into the first subject; but, both within this theme-group and in the transitional passage between themes, Steinberg pushes restlessly forward, producing skittish, imprecise coordination. The second theme stays in, or rather reverts to, the original tempo as marked, but the higher, lighter sonority brings no change of texture or mood. So it goes throughout the movement: the outbursts are impressive, the atmospheric pages detached, and, thanks to the conductor’s impatience, the ensemble frequently just so-so.

In the score, the composer requests a five-minute pause for meditation after the first movement. I don't know whether Steinberg, in this concert, might actually have observed it (few do) but, in whatever time he took, he collected himself: the rest of the performance is both better grounded and more cogent. The strings are proud in the Andante moderato, both in the warmly sculpted articulations of the stately minuet, where they lean just so into the accents, and in their incisively attacked triplets in the contrasting sections. In both reprises of the menuet, Steinberg shapes the counter-themes to complement the melody, so that both elements register with equal importance. The second triplet section is precipitate, but holds together excitingly, with individual motifs clearly defined amidst the activity.

In the scherzo, the violin runs are admirably steady and poised, dancing gracefully over the pizzicato accompaniments while maintaining a forward flow. The Vorwärts passages are a controlled push rather than a headlong tumble. A recurring problem, however, is that Steinberg allows the scrubbing strings to clutter the textures, a particular annoyance at 6:05, where the trumpet tune is somewhat obscured.

The impeccably balanced brass choir gets Urlicht started well; I'll discuss the soloist shortly. In the finale, the more elaborate orchestral passages come off best. The episode after the opening outburst, while hardly Sehr zurückhaltend as marked, suggests, not inappropriately, the aftermath of an explosion, as if scattered musical fragments were falling to earth. In the suitably weighted death march, the trumpet phrases move dynamically over the propulsive dotted motifs. The tricky polymetrical passage after 13:36, combining on- and off-stage instruments, moves in broad lines with fluid assurance. Oddly, Steinberg's handling of the simpler passages is less distinctive: the orchestral interludes following each of the first two choral strains, for example, are efficient rather than evocative. There are other signs of the conductor's fatigue as the movement progresses. The very first attack by the well-blended chorus is conspicuously smudged. The massed violins muddle the dotted pickup to the women's duet, and the next bars don't immediately fall into place. At 30:54, the orchestra seems to be expecting a quick Luftpause, as indicated, but the chorus barges right in! Once begun, however, the closing perorations are thrilling.

The soloists are serviceable rather than exceptional. Anny Delorie’s alto is warm and compact, but not ideally centered, so she rides sharp in Urlicht; she sounds better settled in the finale's "O glaube!" solo. Stefania Woytowicz was known in the West primarily as an exponent of new music - which in 1965, of course, Mahler almost was! Here she sings with a nice shiny tone, but nudges at the rising lines, missing the needed ease.

The sound is quite good in the lighter textures; even the brass choir sounds clean and round when playing on its own. The tuttis, however, are a bit hard and piccolo-heavy, AM-radio style, though always listenable.

A useful document of the conductor's work, though not essential, except perhaps for Steinberg or Mahler completists.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

 

 




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