I’ve already reviewed the previous issues in Markus Stenz’s
Mahler cycle from Cologne (review),
including a particularly impressive Third Symphony (review).
With this recording of the First Stenz completes his traversal
of the ‘Wunderhorn’ symphonies.
The beginning of Mahler’s First must be very difficult
for both the performers and the engineers to balance. When I
first listened to this disc my impression was that the nature
sounds from the woodwind were balanced a little too clearly
and forwardly. I sampled a couple of other recordings taken
at random from the shelves - Leonard Bernstein’s 1987
version made for DG with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra
in their home hall (review)
and Bernard Haitink’s 2008 Chicago (review).
Both these are the product of live performances whereas Stenz
recorded under studio conditions but, arguably, that makes comparisons
all the more interesting since in a live reading, even if there
is patching from a rehearsal, there are fewer chances to get
it right. Both of Stenz’s competitors seem to me to balance
the opening pages less closely, less immediately so there’s
more of a sense of mystery than Stenz achieves - and the little
fanfares on the clarinets (at about 1:01 in the Stenz reading)
are much woodier in tone and much more subtly played in Chicago.
I suspect the issue here is that the OEHMS recording, splendidly
clear and detailed though it is, does place the listener rather
close to the orchestra - I noticed a similar thing when comparing
the Stenz recording of the Fourth with George Szell’s
masterly old recording.
Once we’re past those opening pages, which are very well
played, it should be said, Stenz offers a clear-eyed, fresh
reading. The episode that flows from the ‘Ging heut Morgen
übers Feld’ melody flows very nicely, with innocent
charm and Stenz imparts life and energy into the music. A little
later (from about 8:23) the slower passage with its fragments
of chirping themes is well balanced and controlled. However,
I’m not so happy with Stenz’s way with the passage
beginning at 13:35 where there’s menace in the bass of
the orchestra in the lead-up to the brass fanfares (at 14:10)
that presage the joyful coda. This short passage is taken too
slowly and sounds both ponderous and portentous as a result.
That’s a pity because the coda itself is fast and exhilarating.
The gawky scherzo is well sprung, the rhythms strongly articulated.
The Ländler trio (3:20 - 5:46) is graceful and affectionate
with some nice woodwind detail and string portamenti.
The double bass solo at the start of the third movement is clean
with no trace of wheeziness - some may regret that and feel
it’s too cultured. Stenz‘s tempo is on the fleet
side and I wonder if it’s not just a fraction too swift.
The ‘Lindenbaum’ music (5:06) is delicately played
but again I think the speed is just a little too brisk, the
interpretation a bit too clear-eyed. Stenz seems to be in tune
with the irony in this movement but to miss - or skate over
- some of its feeling.
The finale bursts into life but doesn’t really explode
as it does with some other interpreters. At this point Haitink
is also a bit inclined to underplay things but, as if to compensate,
his Chicagoans bring a power and weight of tone that their Cologne
colleagues can’t quite match. And no one does it like
Lenny! The rhetorical flamboyance of his opening has the music
leaping off the page - and the Concertgebouw players yield little
or nothing to their Chicago rivals when it comes to orchestral
power and virtuosity. However, here we are comparing Stenz with
an exceptional interpretation - and with a white knuckle ride
that may not be to all tastes. His performance is exciting and,
as the movement unfolds, has much to commend it. The long, romantic
D flat melody (from 3:41) is beautifully spun at first and gradually
builds to a strong climax. The return of the opening maelstrom
(7:12) is fast and furious and Stenz is very impressive in the
following pages. The passage from about 10:50 to 15:20, during
which Mahler revisits both the material from the very opening
of the symphony and also the finale’s D flat melody is
well done; Stenz generates a good atmosphere hereabouts and
then the short string fugal passage at 15:20 is fast and urgent.
The final few minutes blaze and the bass drum roll that underpins
the closing bars adds an exciting point of detail.
There’s much to appreciate in this recording of the First
symphony even if it doesn’t challenge the very best in
a crowded and competitive field. It’s a good addition
to Markus Stenz’s cycle.
Masterwork Index: Mahler