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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-04) [81:08]
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. live, 10-12 November 2013, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 651 [38:29 + 42:39]

The finishing line for Markus Stenz’s Mahler cycle is getting closer. According to the conductor’s website there’s to be a final release very soon which will couple the Ninth and ‘the fragment’ of the Tenth. I’m sorry to find that Stenz has not decided to record one of the completed ‘performing versions’ of the Tenth and I’m even more disappointed that it appears there is to be no recording of Das Lied von der Erde. Stenz leaves Cologne at the end of the 2013/14 season after ten years with the Gürzenich-Orchester and I presume the main focus of his attentions will now be the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he’s been Chief Conductor since the 2012/13 season.

Stenz’s fine recording of the Seventh Symphony, the previous instalment in the cycle (review), brought one important change: that was a live recording whereas so far as I know all the previous volumes had been set down under studio conditions. This new Sixth is also live and I think it comes from the last concert performances of Mahler that Stenz and the orchestra gave in Cologne.

It’s been interesting to hear this Stenz reading shortly after reviewing a live recording of the same symphony, made in 2011, by Lorin Maazel. The impression that I take away from the performances is that the overall tone of Maazel’s is a bit darker and grimmer than Stenz’s: one might describe it as heavier, though this is not to suggest that Stenz’s performance is in any way lightweight. Maazel’s reading is also somewhat more expansive at times – his performance takes 8 minutes longer overall – but sometimes this expansiveness occurs because he slows down to make an expressive point. Generally, these instances of slowing down don’t detract from the overall integrity of Maazel’s reading but Stenz’s performance is free of such momentary distortions and I welcome that. I find both performances very impressive, though different in conception.

Stenz starts the first movement at a powerful and well-judged pace which is pretty similar to Maazel’s. However, once past the opening paragraphs he moves the music forward a bit more than his older colleague – the ‘Alma’ theme surges ecstatically, for instance. The music is strongly defined and projected by the Cologne orchestra. One difference between the two recordings is that the sound of the cowbells is much less easy to hear on the Stenz recording; indeed, when they appear in the first movement I had to strain my ears to be sure the sound was actually there. I can only think that Stenz made a deliberate decision regarding dynamics because the cowbells are much more ‘present’ in the Andante movement than they are in either the first or last movements. In the Maazel performance we hear them at a pretty consistent volume in each movement and I prefer this; Mahler wrote them into the score for a purpose and one needs to be aware of each interjection. There’s urgency and a great sense of sweep to Stenz’s account of the first movement and the final pages have a fierce exaltation. Overall, I don’t think his vision of this movement is as grim as Maazel’s – though I find both views convincing in their own terms – and dare I suggest this might be the vision of a younger man? However, be in no doubt: there’s no lack of power in Stenz’s performance.

Stenz is one of those conductors who believe that the Andante moderato movement should be placed second. My own preference is to hear it after the scherzo, an ordering which I feel makes more sense for a number of reasons, though I recognise the force of the argument that the Andante-Scherzo ordering represented Mahler’s last thoughts on the subject and should be respected. Stenz conveys the warm, lyrical nostalgia of the music but, though this is the mood for much of the movement, there are some impassioned passages and these are splendidly done here. In particular, the extended climax (from 10:45) is really ardent and urgent in Stenz’s hands, after which he brings the music to rest in the closing pages with expert judgement. The Scherzo is vivid and biting. The rhythms are strongly articulated, whether the dynamics are loud or soft, and one senses that Stenz, having worked with this orchestra for a good number of years now, can easily obtain an authentically Mahlerian sound. The trio, marked altväterisch by Mahler, does indeed sound “old-fashioned” with the players relishing the piquancy of the scoring and also investing the music with delicacy. I have a slight quibble that there is only a minimal gap between the end of the scherzo and the start of the last movement: a gap of even a few seconds longer would have been preferable.

I’ve not commented so far on the quality of the recorded sound. This is the first recording in this series to which I’ve been able to listen as an SACD while reviewing. The results are very impressive indeed and nowhere more so than in the huge finale. Stenz’s ear for Mahlerian detail, the skill of the players and the technical prowess of the engineers mean that we hear the opening of the finale with great clarity; an abundance of detail is audible, demonstrating the great originality of Mahler’s invention and scoring in this remarkable introduction. As the great drama of Mahler’s finale unfolds Stenz conducts with great urgency – indeed, electricity would not be too strong a word. His approach is not as weighty as some – Maazel, for one – but it is still very powerful. I don’t know how the hammer blows (at 12:52 and 16:51) are achieved but the sound produced is a very loud, dull thud which seems highly effective to me. As I listened there were some instances when I wondered if Stenz was pushing the music on a bit more urgently than I might have liked – for example in the passage between the two hammer blows – but I found myself caught up in the drama of his conception and the sense almost of peril. This is a heat of the moment performance, which leads to a shattering ending, and I found it gripping and highly persuasive.

This is a compelling reading of Mahler’s Sixth and one of the high points of Stenz’s cycle. The playing is superb throughout and the engineers have done a fine job, producing sound of great clarity, depth and range. I now look forward to hearing what Markus Stenz and this fine orchestra bring to the Ninth.

John Quinn

Markus Stenz’s Maher cycle on MusicWeb International
Symphony No 1
Symphony No 2
Symphony No 3
Symphony No 4
Symphony No 5
Symphony No 7
Symphony No 8
Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Masterwork Index: Symphony 6

Tony Duggan’s Survey of recordings of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony