MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor – Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/ Markus Stenz, Oehms Classics

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor – Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/ Markus Stenz, Oehms Classics OCD650, 68:03 ***** [Distrib. by Naxos]:

The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln remains one of Germany’s leading orchestras with a background of musical pride. Based in Cologne, this was the very orchestra which delivered the world premieres of Brahms’s Double Concerto (conducted by Johannes Brahms, 1887), Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and Don Quixote (both conducted by Franz Wüllner, 1895 and 1898), and other major compositions of their contemporaries. But, perhaps, it was Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) whom the orchestra had a particular close and noteworthy relationship with during the composer’s lifetime. This relationship was no coincidence nor a brief flirtation from Mahler, as the 1902 world premiere of his Third Symphony was delivered by the “Cologne City Orchestra” (as it was then called) at the 38th composers’ convention of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, conducted by the composer himself. “Perhaps I have found an artistic home here in Cologne … delightful, a real joy,” Mahler wrote to his wife Alma about the orchestra. It was also from his experience with the Third Symphony that in part led Mahler to conduct the world premiere of his Fifth Symphony with this same orchestra in October 1904.

One hundred and five years later, the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln revisits Mahler’s Fifth together with their Kapellmeister Markus Stenz in this début Oehms Classics recording. On the strengths of this historical background, it is a logical move for the orchestra to begin an intended Mahler Symphonies Cycle starting with the Fifth. Stenz is also a logical choice to engage in this undertaking with the orchestra. Those who attended Stenz’s conducting of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony very recently when he guest-conducted in the U.S. may recall how he engages his musicians to deliver tonal projections with elasticity and energy, and what peculiar sensitivity he had with dynamics. In this recording of the Fifth, one hears the audio consequences of his attention to details. After all, Mahler’s music is not just about size and volume – but is at the same time, an intimacy in a dialog of sounds, exposed like unveiling one layer after another on an oil canvas.

The first movement is hefty and brings out the energy of Wagnerian influences. Stenz’s reading of the opening funeral march may not have the ‘punch’ or the megawatt-charged impressions as the former readings by Barbirolli or Bernstein; sheer volume here seems to impress less interest to our German conductor. The second movement reveals a most detailed reading from the orchestra, preserving the instructions on dynamics, phrasing, etc. Impressively, to mimic a concert-like experience on SACD, one can hear the prominence (usually more transparent in concert halls) that in part was achieved by Stenz’s splitting the orchestra’s violins left and right, as he had also done recently with the Fourth Symphony. Stenz’s choice for tempo in the Adagietto drives the music at a rather modest speed compared to recordings of Bruno Walter from New York in 1947 (7:35) or the far extreme of Leonard Bernstein from Frankfurt in 1987 (11:16). Stenz’s tempo helped in part to balance the orchestra with both the necessary momentum and a near-ideal responsive playing, where the separation of violins pays great dividends to the acoustics. The Finale starts with a single note from the horn, followed by clean and well-articulated horn playing that provides a smooth platform for the music to follow. In the final moments, Stenz and his musicians together reach a true apotheosis of this music, bringing the impact of the Finale to its full effect.

This SACD is clear and balanced. The useful notes paired in English and German, plus a 184-page Oehms Classics Catalogue (for 2010) accompanies the release. The impression one gets in this début Mahler recording by Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln reveals that their Kapellmeister clearly has something to communicate about Mahler. It started with Mahler’s Fifth, and it certainly leaves one begging to find out what the remaining Mahler recordings will reveal.  I doubt that anyone purchasing this one is likely to be disappointed.

— Patrick P.L. Lam

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