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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D (1908-9) [78:12]
Symphony No. 10 Adagio (1910) [23:21]
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. 2011/14, Studio Stolberger Strasse, Cologne
OEHMS CLASSICS OC654 SACD [78:12 + 23:21]

During the heyday of the Mahler revival, some commentators, and even some conductors, had a propensity for viewing Mahler's Ninth Symphony as representing the composer's reflections on life and farewell to the world. It's a lovely Romantic conceit, and it's total hogwash. For one thing, what we call the Ninth Symphony was not Mahler's actual ninth symphony: Das Lied von der Erde is essentially a symphony with voices, but the superstitious composer, fearing death, avoided assigning it a number. Then there's the matter of the Tenth Symphony: unfinished, yes, but complete in short score, with one movement, the opening Adagio, fully playable as orchestrated -- even if, as Deryck Cooke pointed out, the woodwind staves are "suspiciously empty" much of the time.

On the evidence of this recording, conductor Markus Stenz would seem to share this perspective on the Ninth. The first movement is briskly and tightly paced: the conductor lets the spare textures and strongly "felt" rests convey the needed sense of space. Rhythms are consistently buoyant: the strings' paired upbeats maintain their anticipatory, "upbeat" quality; dotted rhythms in tutti, are springy; the Etwas frischer at 5:00 has a kind of waltzy lilt, though it's not a waltz. Stenz proceeds with a minimum of fuss, moving straightforwardly into, and through, the big climaxes, keeping the turbulence in firm control. Only the development section hits a lull, despite the surely organized counterpoint after 16:31. The recap is beautifully phrased, however, and the ending brings a nice sense of resolution.

The Ländler is similarly forthright, but the playing carries enough of the necessary tonal weight. Stenz makes a slight, and effective, pullback on the first set of pickups, although he permits later ones to rush. The shift into the faster Tempo II at 2:25 is immediate and assured; the passage maintains the sense of a galumphing peasant dance, even as the textures get busy. Tempo III is tenderly phrased, while the return of Tempo II in the home stretch suggests a whirling ballroom dance.
The characterful Rondo-Burleske benefits from incisive attacks and crisp woodwind articulations, and Stenz's attention to colour is again welcome: the oboe-and-clarinet unisons have an appropriate trumpet-like bite, while the high, light first violin line after 5:47 registers as a distinct musical element rather than a vague halo. On the other hand, uncertain tempo projections -- a L'istesso tempo at 1:48 that actually moves slightly faster, a Tempo I subito at 10:05 that begins rather carefully -- muddle the movement's structural cohesion.

It's in the Finale that Stenz's rigorous, no-nonsense approach falls short. The movement begins promisingly: the violins' introductory gesture is clearly shaped; the first theme is dignified and spacious. The flowing tempo allows you actually to hear motivic relationships obscured in the more marmoreal readings. But small details are neglected: the strings haven't time to caress the gruppetti, which are basically flicked; in the spacious final minutes, which hold together better than most, the double pickups just go by, with no real weight. It's all thoughtful and musicianly, but ultimately disappointing, despite full-bodied climaxes.

As if to underline Stenz's non-valedictory point, this issue appends the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony, extravagantly given a full disc to itself. (It looks like Oehms may have had this in the can for a while and, after completing the cycle, had nowhere better to put it.) It's not clear exactly what edition is being used: it's not identified, and it omits some of Cooke's speculative wind "fillers" and even one or two of the obbligatos. Stenz's performance is mostly fine, even if he tends reflexively to move forward at the Nicht schleppen ("don't drag") markings, which don't mean that, exactly. The chorales for strings and trombones have a full-throated intensity, while contrasting episodes become flickering, ghostly dances.

Stephen Francis Vasta

Previous review: John Quinn


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