MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 – Cologne Gurzenich Orch. /Marcus Stenz – Oehms Classics (2 discs)

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 – Cologne Gurzenich Orch. /Marcus Stenz – Oehms Classics multichannel SACD OC651 1:07:34 (two discs) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Having just recently reviewed a Blu-ray video performance of the Mahler Symphony No. 5  with Riccardo Chailly it was an interesting challenge to listen to this SACD of a live performance from Oehms Classics in Germany. The Symphony No. 5 is a challenge for any orchestra and composer. It’s a steep hill to climb, both due to its length and its difficulty.

This is a significantly different, but in no way inferior interpretation to the Chailly. The tempos as played by the Cologne Orchestra are brisk, and the recording has a very different emotional approach. Stenz lets Mahler be Mahler, without overly interpreting the master. The performance is spot on, with no ragged entrances or other sloppiness that sometimes get revealed in a live recording. This performance is pristine. The first movement has drive and energy. It’s a pretty obvious contrast and antithesis to the Bernstein interpretation which is often scoffed at by Mahler aficionados for its tempos and emotionalism. The Stenz performance here is certainly valid and musically excellent. The other movements are well played, although I found the fourth movement, the “Adagietto”, a bit flat emotionally.

A few thoughts on the recording. The 5.1 sound is very spacious, but there is a bit too much of the hall for my taste and some of the precision of the orchestra is lost in the ambiance and reflections. This is a 5.1 recording, but even listening in stereo the listening position is a bit too far back in the hall.. I don’t believe it is a mistake in the recording, just a difference in the recording methodology and esthetic.. The Chailly was a very detailed recording, and it’s likely true that seeing the concert gives an impression of even more detail. But with the video off, I still prefer the Chailly recording. At the same time, I know many listeners will appreciate the laid back sonic image on offer here.

This Mahler 5th comes on two discs, because even though SACD can carry a lot more data than a standard CD, we have 5.1 channels of audio, plus a stereo layer, so that’s more capacity than a single SACD can hold.

This is a fine Mahler 5th, but there are so many excellent recordings and performances I find I am drawn to the more revealing recordings.

—Mel Martin

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