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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-1896)
Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Women's choir of Schola Heidelberg
Young singers of the Kölner Dom
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2018, Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne
Reviewed as a 24/48 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet includes sung texts in German, French & English
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905314.15 [2 CDs: 93:23]

I first encountered François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles, his period-instrument band, at a BBC Prom concert in 2013, which featured a revelatory account of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. Happily, their recording of the piece, coupled with Pétrouchka, was just as vital and interesting (Actes Sud Musicales). Indeed, that perfectly describes most of his subsequent outings with this orchestra, notably Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (Harmonia Mundi). Alas, I was disappointed by their recent Debussy album, a very decent Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and a fine Jeux compromised by a rather eccentric set of Nocturnes (Harmonia Mundi).

Absolutely no reservations about Roth’s Mahler Fifth, though, recorded with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, of which he has been Kapellmeister since 2015 (Harmonia Mundi). A very different ensemble, but the same sense of renewal that made his Sacre so special. The Cologne Fifth won’t please the traditionalists, especially those who prefer a weightier, more imposing approach. But those who persevere will be astonished to discover aspects of the score they hadn’t heard before. Roth’s emphasis on transparency and a lightness of touch is pure joy for the jaded, which surely augurs well for the rest of this cycle. The competition in these symphonies, the Third in particular, is both distinguished and extensive. High among more recent versions is Iván Fischer’s, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. It’s outstanding, which is why I made it one of my Recordings of the Year for 2017 (Channel Classics).

Mentally rummaging through my stash of Mahler 3s, I confirmed that, almost without exception, conductors and engineers seem to favour a big, sumptuous sound. Claudio Abbado’s Vienna recording, with Jessye Norman richly expansive in the Nietzsche setting, is a case in point (Deutsche Grammophon). Then again, who could possibly object to the uniquely thrilling noise of the Wiener Philharmoniker in full cry? And, more often than not, such an approach is supplemented by an irresistible surge and sweep, adding immeasurably to the implacable grandeur of this great piece. But is that the only way to play it? After all, Mahler himself suggested tradition is a form of laziness, so perhaps now’s the time to reappraise this well-worn piece.

Roth’s Third begins with its customary impact and amplitude, but we’re quickly reminded a funeral cortege is passing by. There’s a darkly solemn tread here, pointed up by properly muffled bass-drum beats. What a remarkably atmospheric intro, made all the more so by taut rhythms and a powerful sense of purpose. (The latter’s always a good sign at this early stage.) Also, as I found with the Fifth, Roth has a talent for ‘unpacking’ these complex scores and presenting them in the most natural and revealing way. Burnished colours, fine detail and well-judged tempi are central to his method, and it helps that Jens Schünemann’s superb recording - wide, deep and perfectly proportioned - has a ‘hear through’ quality that allows one to marvel at the symphony’s intricate inner workings.

As if that weren’t accolade enough, the more bucolic moments of this extended opener are presented with a beguiling charm, the Gürzenich woodwinds giving vibrant voice to the calls and echoes of the forest. Roth eschews the grand, seamless approach - thus music can easily seem too moulded - opting instead for a consciously discrete series of colourful encounters. Paradoxically, that’s achieved without compromising Mahler’s long, load-sensitive spans; that, in itself, is quite an achievement. The sheer variety of music on display is breathtaking, enhanced, no doubt, by the conductor’s desire for expressive honesty, which, in turn, leads to an ease and simplicity of utterance. And goodness, what a marvellous coda; it really is a culmination of all that’s gone before, Roth slamming the door - with relish - at the very end.

As I discovered with Osmo Vänskä’s recent Minnesota Mahler 5, these symphonies can start well and end badly (BIS). But, given that Roth has already proved his credentials in this repertoire - I fear Vänskä has not - it’s no surprise to find the second movement is every bit as illuminating and immersive as the first. There’s affection aplenty, with lovely, lilting Ländler and ear-pricking woodwinds. With other conductors, I often feel they travel in serene comfort, and that lends detachment to the view. Roth, with rucksack and hiking boots, is much closer to the action, able, when the fancy takes him, to simply stand and stare. Ditto in the third movement, its tenor horn much further away than usual. Normally, that would be cause for criticism, but here it just adds to the image of a solitary wayfarer, delighting in every sound, even those distant, barely discernible ones.

Contralto Sara Mingardo is limpid, but not at all limp, in ‘O Mensch!’. The discreet poise and pulse of the orchestra at this point is ravishing, Roth bring out the shot-silk quality of Mahler’s near-miraculous writing. Indeed, it’s been ages since I was so deeply affected by this little interlude. Roth paces and shapes it all so persuasively, the quiet brass especially well caught. And it just gets better, the ideally placed women’s and boys’ choirs fresh and clear, but not, as so often, overly bright. Once again, I was struck by the fact that Roth doesn’t always insist on a smooth, uniform line, preferring instead to give sentences and paragraphs a distinct beginning and end. That, too, might be an issue in other performances, but here it feels entirely right.

At any rate, that doesn’t interfere with the narrative, particularly in the long-breathed finale. In Roth’s sensitive and judicious hands, the music seems to arise from a profound stillness, an effect that’s really quite remarkable. With the help of finely calibrated playing, this movement unfolds with a pure, compelling logic - not always the case - its path and final destination preordained. And what a mighty, transcendent climax, crowning, as it does, a truly unforgettable performance. Indeed, if the rest of Roth’s Mahler cycle comes even close to his Three and Five, then the resulting set could well become a new benchmark for these symphonies. As an aside, I hope future releases are recorded, like the Third, in the Kölner Philharmonie, a far more congenial acoustic than the Studio Stolberger Straße used for the Fifth.

A game-changing Mahler 3 from Roth and his German band; outstanding sonics, too.

Dan Morgan

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