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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-1902) [63:38]
Four songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-1898) [20:19]
Fünf Rückert-Lieder (1901-1902) [20:30]
Siegfried Lorenz (baritone)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Otmar Suitner (symphony, DKW)
Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester/Günther Herbig (Rückert)
rec. 1-2 March 1982 (DKW); 24-25 September (Rückert) & 10-13 December 1984 (Symphony no. 5);
Christuskirche Studio, Berlin. DDD
No texts
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300922BC [63:38 + 40:54]

My MusicWeb colleague Dan Morgan has already reviewed this double CD issue from Berlin Classics but I part company with him regarding its merits – or rather, lack of merit according to Dan; such is the subjectivity of musical taste. He found more pleasure in the songs than the symphony; for me the reverse is true, although I enjoy baritone Siegfried Lorenz’ sensitive singing. Nor do I object to the early 80’s digital recording quality – again, different playback set-ups can often account for that – finding it bright but not shallow and in fact first rate.

It is likely that my greater familiarity with Otmar Suitner’s discography predisposed me to enjoy his Mahler; he was of Viennese background but became a prominent musical figure in East Germany, where he was, among other things, director of the Staatsoper Berlin and thus simultaneously the Staatskapelle. He amassed a sizeable discography, particularly strong in Mozart, Dvorak, Beethoven, German opera in general and, of course, Mahler. Suitner’s devotion to the composer was no doubt enhanced by both men being Austrian and must have lent credibility and authenticity to Suitner’s conducting of Mahler. The other conductor here, Günther Herbig, is less well-known but was chief conductor of both the Berlin Sinfonie-Orchester and the Staatskapelle Dresden. Thus, both conductors were highly apt and experienced Mahler conductors despite the relative novelty of recording him in East Germany in the early 80’s.

Dan is of the opinion that the Rückert Lieder were recorded over three years and the symphony in 1982, but I think closer scrutiny of the recording dates shows that both the Rückert Lieder and the Fifth were recorded in late 1984 and it was Des Knaben Wunderhorn that was made in 1982; it matters little as they are of a piece in sound and style.

Reminiscences from the vocal soloist here and the leader of the BSO, in combination with Suitner’s obituary by Rob Cowan in the “Gramophone”, testify to the joy of working with him and reflect my own reaction to his recordings here. The latter speaks of his “fresh, spontaneous conducting style…verdant and musically gripping” and how his studies under Clemens Krauss influenced “his feeling for precisely the ‘right’ phrase or tempo”, while Lorenz remembers that “[h]e was very relaxed, not over-focussed – a fantastic conductor, always at ease and enthusiastic. These songs needed an orchestra that produces pure expression”. Lothar Friedrich, speaking of the recording of the Fifth Symphony, observes, “Suitner struck an excellent balance between his emotional side on the one hand and his intellectual approach on the other.”

It is the unaffected naturalness of Suitner’s direction that is so appealing; he was never an obtrusive conductor and for the most part I find his approach to the Fifth similar to Barbirolli’s without being so indulgent. Having generated great tension in the brisk, propulsive first movement and the stormy second, Suitner is by contrast free and affectionate in his lilting, very Austrian treatment of the waltz sections in the Scherzo. The Adagietto is free and flowing, considerably briefer than my favourite versions by Karajan and Shipway; the harp is rather too prominent but I love the surge and swoon of Suitner’s phrasing, again betraying his Viennese roots.

The Lieder are undoubtedly authentic in feeling; Lorenz’ baritone is typically German: light, steady and velvety, similar in timbre to Fischer-Dieskau’s but “cleaner” in tonal production, slightly grainy up top with rather too pronounced a vibrato at times but invariably elegant and patrician in manner. The orchestral accompaniment in both sets of songs is lovely under both conductors, especially the woodwind in “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” which concludes with a sumptuous string glissando upwards.

The presentation of this slim, cardboard digipack is attractive and the notes are entertaining and informative, but unfortunately no texts are provided.

Ralph Moore

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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