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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa