Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Symphony No. 5
Markus Stenz, cond; Cologne Gürzenich O
OEHMS 650 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 68:03)
This release inaugurates a new Mahler symphony series. Whatever the relative merits of the completed cycle, there is ample justification for a recording of the Fifth from
these forces: Mahler conducted the premiere of the Symphony in Cologne with this orchestra in October of 1905. The premiere generated an unusual amount of critical comment, most of it negative: Mahler had arrived, but surely not in the way he would have preferred. This Symphony had caused him considerable difficulty, and he was revising the orchestration in his last year. Even now, there is disagreement about the nature and tempo of the Adagietto and the proper way to conduct the last note of the first movement.
After a suitably commanding opening, Stenz wastes no time in the funeral march. This is a stern, dry-eyed march characterized by grim determination. There is nobility, however, in the implacable forward momentum of the interpretation—no nostalgic backward glances here, but perhaps a note of regret. The sudden accelerando is almost hair-raisingly fast, but is soon moderated by an impressive chorale, presaging the even more devastating “collapse.” Altogether, this is a very convincing version of Mahler’s preamble. (Incidentally, the last note is underplayed very effectively.)
Stenz storms in with the second, more substantial movement of part 1, and the tumultuous energy of the orchestra is indeed impressive. When the funeral march appears again, it possesses a nicely gauged satiric edge that sharpens the melancholy. This sense is deepened by a cello cantilena that halts the proceedings with playing of refinement and feeling. The quacking winds and schmaltzy violins soon cast doubt on the sincerity of all of that angst, however—Mahler at his most ambivalent. Stenz is most impressive at conveying the contradictions that made for so much consternation and confusion among Mahler’s first audiences: is he serious, making a mockery of the heroics of the
symphonies with that falsely triumphant chorale near the end of this movement?
All of that ambiguity is dissolved with the jolly Scherzo. Stenz points up the rhythmic variety while allowing the dance element its primacy. This is hardly a courtly waltz, though: there is too much gear shifting for such a characterization; here, truly, is Wagner’s “apotheosis of the dance.” The Gürzenich principals take the spotlight: though the horn is putatively the star, the strings and winds are just as impressive.
After the bumptious energy of the Scherzo, the calm of the Adagietto is indeed welcome. Stenz is an adherent of the Mengelberg/Kaplan school, so his is a swiftly flowing love note. This relative brevity only serves to heighten the sense of anticipation, and the ardor of the playing is palpable: it is performances such as this that convince one that Leonard Bernstein was simply wrong about this movement.
The rhythmic excitement of the Scherzo returns in the enormously animated Rondo-Finale. This is surely Mahler’s most life-affirming symphonic movement, at least among the instrument-only finales, and Stenz and his Cologne contingent invest the music with élan and sheer instrumental muscle. At a timing of less than 15 minutes, the music fairly flies along, but one feels only exuberance, never just speed for speed’s sake.
To echo my opening statement, whatever befalls the eventual series as a whole, this first installment makes for an auspicious beginning. From this unanticipated source comes a Mahler Fifth worthy to rank with SACDs by Zander (Telarc) and Jansons (RSO Live), and it receives my highest recommendation.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 5 in C sharp minor by Gustav Mahler
Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra
Written: 1901-1902; Vienna, Austria
Be the first to review this title