Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 7
Markus Stenz, cond; Cologne Gürzenich O
OEHMS 652 (SACD: 73:35) Live: Cologne 6/23-27/2012
Mahler described his Seventh Symphony as a work of “predominantly cheerful, humoristic content.” Was he being ironic? Markus Stenz doesn’t seem to think so. Stenz’s Seventh is alternately a work of cosmic humor and rough, peasant guffaws. Throughout, Stenz conducts the work with a light touch and basically quick tempos. It’s worth remembering that Mahler and his wife enjoyed playing through
the latest operetta scores in arrangements for piano four hands. In his essay “Mahler: Our Contemporary,” Pierre Boulez writes of performing the composer that “ any rash surrender to the frenzy, or indeed the hysteria, of the moment will destroy the original motivation of the music by destroying its essential ambiguity, thus making it hopelessly trivial and emptying it of its profound content.” Stenz’s account is always lucid, even when he meets the music’s demand for hilarious “frenzy.” Interestingly, Boulez’s great recording of the Seventh with the Cleveland Orchestra is only a minute longer than Stenz’s, yet they are very different conceptions. Boulez’s interpretation is basically vertical, with a serious delineation of the music’s textures. Stenz’s account is more horizontal, with many shifts in tempo to characterize the music. His orchestra is not as virtuosic as the Cleveland, yet it is a fine ensemble with a Central European sound highly appropriate for Mahler. Stenz demonstrates that what Boulez calls Mahler’s “profound content” can exist in a light framework, just as it does in Verdi’s
. Even Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant Sony recording of the Seventh seems slightly ponderous after hearing Stenz.
Stenz realizes what Boulez calls Mahler’s “essential ambiguity” in the opening movement’s march, which can mean so many things as it veers from funeral dirge to operetta ensemble. Instead of the “hopelessly trivial,” Stenz gives us Mahler’s most modern juxtaposition of musical elements. Stenz revels in unveiling one musical world after another. He is especially good at expressing Mahler’s longing for transcendence, which coexists here with mocking humor and slapstick. In the first “Nachtmusik,” Stenz portrays a
atmosphere of magical chaos. The gods seem to laugh at us. Stenz renders a
world gone slightly mad—one doesn’t know if the laughter comes from inside or outside one’s head. Leonard Bernstein described some of this music as “campy.” If so, it’s high camp. Stenz’s quick tempo for the third movement realizes Mahler’s instruction, “like a shadow,” with wonderful evanescence. We hear the nervous laughter fear can provoke, even as the music threatens to turn into a sinister version of a Suppé overture. Stenz begins the second “Nachtmusik” like an homage to Léhar. For a slow movement, it’s worlds away from the agonized longing in the
of the Fifth Symphony. Stenz finds a gnomic element here, saying more with less. His orchestra makes an especially elegant and transparent sound in this “Nachtmusik.” Stenz’s finale is jocose and bucolic at once. Even in the tuttis, there is the feeling of a village band. Stenz brings out splendidly the allusion to the Turkish music from Mozart’s
The Abduction from the Seraglio
. The vision of heaven which ends the Fourth Symphony here is brought down to earth.
The sound engineering on the CD layer is excellent, with a large soundstage and plenty of color. I was unable to audition the SACD layer. Stenz’s Seventh definitely is a major statement of this work. I think it earns a place beside any recordings you happen to have. For insight and clarity, it is hard to beat.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 7 in E minor by Gustav Mahler
Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra
Written: 1904-1905; Vienna, Austria
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