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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-1902) [63:34]
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (excerpts) (1892-1898) [20:19]
Revelge [6:18]
Der Schildwache Nachtlied [4:44]
Der Tamboursg’sell [5:23]
Lied des Verfolgten im Turm [3:54]
Fünf Rückert-Lieder (1901-1902) [20:30]
Siegfried Lorenz (baritone)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Otmar Suitner (symphony, DKW)
Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester/Günther Herbig (Rückert) 
rec. 1982 (Suitner), 1979-1982 (Herbig), Christuskirche Studio, Berlin
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet does not include sung texts
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300922BC [104:23] 

Eterna, the East German record label founded in 1947, is long since defunct, but thanks to Berlin Classics their catalogue lives on. As part of the latter’s 70th-anniversary celebrations a number of albums have been selected for remastering and reissue. Among them is Kurt Sanderling’s Shostakovich Fifth, recorded with the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester in 1986. And what a splendid choice, for that was one of my top picks for 2016. To the list must now be added this 1982 recording of Mahler’s Fifth and four Wunderhorn songs with Otmar Suitner and the Staatskapelle Berlin. Baritone Siegfried Lorenz is the soloist here and in the Rückert-Lieder; the latter, not part of the original 2-LP set, are with Günther Herbig and the BSO.

Suitner, who died in 2010, was music director of the Staatsoper Berlin from 1964 to 1990, a post that automatically conferred on him leadership of the Staatskapelle. And although he has a decent discography, with the emphasis on core Austro-German repertoire, I’ve not heard any of his recordings before. Herbig also played an active part in the musical life of the DDR; he was chief conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic from 1972 to 1977 and the BSO from 1977 to 1983, at which point he emigrated to the US and was appointed music director of the Detroit Symphony a year later. I don’t recall any of his recordings either – ditto Lorenz – which makes this album a triple first for me.

In addition to the original LP sleeve notes by Eberhardt Klemm, there’s an update by Karsten Blüthgen which, amidst a tangle of anecdotes, reminds us that Mahler was still fairly new to these East German bands thirty years ago. Starting with the symphony, does it show? Suitner is brisk and clear-eyed from the start – unfussy, even – which manifests itself in clean textures and good rhythmic control. However, the bright, rather shallow recording is nowhere near the standard of that Shostakovich Fifth; this feeds into the growing impression that the performance is rather lightweight as well.

The playing is certainly enthusiastic, and the second movement is delivered with alacrity and bite. That said, this is music-making of the moment, rather than the whole hour, and I really miss the sense of architecture, of cumulative power, that great – even good – Mahlerians bring to this repertoire. As a result, Suitner’s climaxes – fierce and forward – come across as rhetorical gestures rather than genuine dramatic peaks. There’s no dawdling in the Scherzo either, and it’s here that the performance really starts to unravel; the Ländler are efficient rather than affectionate, and some passages are so rushed they’re almost garbled.

But it’s the lack of light and shade, of nuance and colour, that really starts to grate at this point; the less than subtle recording doesn’t help. As for the difficult-to-calibrate Adagietto, the harp is too prominent, the other strings too distant, and the whole movement is just too gaudy for words. After all that surge and swoon – Korngold, anyone? – the Rondo-Finale rattles past, its paragraphs barely discernible and its narrative lost. Factor in a severe case of listening fatigue and it’s little wonder that I disliked this performance so much.

Following a much-needed pause I listened to the four Wunderhorn songs. Lorenz, whose Schubert is highly regarded, makes a very good impression in the jaunty Revelge. Der Schildwache Nachtlied is attractive too, Suitner a buoyant accompanist throughout. Indeed, there’s more subtlety to the playing here, not to mention a surer grasp of the Mahlerian idiom. And Der Tamboursg'sell has plenty of character, Lorenz both strong and sensitive, the orchestral colours suitably dark. As for Lied des Verfolgten im Turm, it’s decent enough, if not quite as assured or insightful as the rest.

Some of the balances in those songs are less than ideal, but those in the Rückert ones – taped over three years – feel more natural. Also, the BSO are more refined and rounder of tone than their Staatskapelle counterparts, Herbig a thoughtful and pliant interpreter. As for Lorenz, he sings with intelligence and authority; indeed, Ich atmet' einen linden Duft is delivered with a hushed intensity and purity of line that’s most affecting. And how gorgeous the playing in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, Lorenz at his gentle, radiant best. Um Mitternacht and Liebst du um Schönheit are no less lovely.

While Suitner’s stock rises somewhat in the Wunderhorn songs, it’s Lorenz who deserves the most praise here. In fact, his excellent Rückert-Lieder have tempted me to try his Wayfarer songs and Kindertotenlieder, recorded with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on 0185872BC; that album, which includes the songs presented here, is available as a 16-bit download from eClassical. I’m also keen to hear Lorenz’s Schubert; that’s also available on Berlin Classics, but not as part of their anniversary edition.

A rough and wayward Mahler Fifth, redeemed by the vocal items; variable playing and sound.

Dan Morgan



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