Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (SACD review)

Christiane Oelze, soprano; Markus Stenz, Gurzenich Orchestra Koln. Oehms Classics OC 649.

For the past forty years or so we've seen as many or more recordings of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) than practically anyone else. Why the popularity, especially of his First and Fourth Symphonies? I don't know, but everybody has a guess. I'd say it's because Mahler's music is so accessible, so tuneful, yet so mature. Just as important, his music is big, the man composing for huge orchestras; and his music is varied, from grand, eloquent sections to quiet, intimate passages, from deadly serious to mischievously satiric. No doubt, too, a lot of folks have discovered that Mahler's music is one heck of a great way to show off a stereo system. In any case, Mahler is back, this time his Fourth Symphony (1900) with maestro Markus Stenz and the Gurzenich Orchestra Koln on a hybrid stereo/multichannel Oehms Classics Super Analogue Compact Disc.

Stenz shows us from the outset that we are going to be in for an interpretation of strong contrasts. The first movement, which Mahler marked as "gay, deliberate, and leisurely," begins with the jingling of sleigh bells, which the conductor takes very gently, very softly, very slowly, building quickly to a mild frenzy before letting it subside into relative calm. The music certainly justifies the change-ups in mood and tempo, and the result is the carefree cheerfulness I'm sure Mahler intended. Bruno Walter, the conductor who probably helped popularize Mahler more than anybody else, once wrote of the Fourth Symphony that the composer "assures himself and us of a sheltered security in the sublime and serene dream of a heavenly life." Stenz sees it mostly this way, too.

The second movement introduces Death into the scene, with a vaguely sinister violin motive. Stenz ensures that the character of the music is never actually threatening, however. It is more playful than most other interpretations and certainly not at all menacing.

Then comes the slow, third-movement Adagio, marked "peacefully," a kind of respite from the oddities of Mr. Death in the previous section. Stenz handles it as "peacefully" as I have ever heard it done, again demonstrating his unexaggerated tendency to contrasts.

All of this is build up, of course, to the fourth and final movement, Mahler's vision of heaven as exemplified in the simple innocence of an old Bavarian folk song, a part of the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler so favored. Indeed, Mahler wanted this movement to sound so unaffected he insisted upon the soprano's part being sung with "child-like bright expression, always without parody." This doesn't mean, though, that Stenz doesn't see some irony in the closing statement, especially when Mahler has it fading into silence. Does the silence symbolize the rapture and ecstasy of eternal heavenly bliss, or does it also suggest nothingness? A contradiction to the end.

In any case, the last movement is the only one that struck me as slightly out of character, the soprano, Christiane Oelze, seeming a little more sedate and mature than the naive innocent Mahler describes. Still, it's a quibble. This is a lovely rendering all the way around.

The sound, recorded in the Kolner Philharmonie in 2009, is beautifully smooth and detailed, with more than adequate stage depth in the two-channel stereo mode I experienced. Although dynamics are a trifle soft, on the few occasions when the orchestra produces a deep bass note, everything comes across most authoritatively. The more one listens, the more one recognizes how very natural this recording sounds, as though one were actually in the hall with the musicians. Everything about the disc seems to work in harmony with everything else.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa