Mahler: Symphony No. 1 “Titan” (SACD review)

Markus Stenz, Gurzenich-Orchester Koln. Oehms Classics OC 646.

“Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?”
--Educating Rita

Maestro Markus Stenz and his Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra were in the midst of a complete Mahler symphony cycle when they recorded this First Symphony, and by the look of things, they appear to have the hang of it.

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) completed his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1888, and it was a few years after the composer’s death that fellow Austrian composer Arnold Schonberg suggested that it encapsulated all that Mahler would elaborate upon in his later music. Mahler said he was trying to describe in the work a progression of his protagonist facing life from the lighter moments of youth to the darker years of maturity. Indeed, Mahler initially didn’t even want to call it a symphony but rather a tone poem, giving each movement a title it was so programmatic.

Anyway, the first movement, “Spring without End,” characterizes youth in the symbolic awakening of Nature from a long spring. Stenz evokes the mists of dawn quite well, never pushing too hard. Then as he is developing the whole youth vs. the vicissitudes of life business in properly dramatic fashion, we find Stenz handling things gently, too, with a nicely relaxed feeling, never pushing headlong into a rush.

In the second movement Scherzo, “With Full Sail,” Mahler is in one of his early mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may or may not have meant to be ironic. Stenz keeps it that way, although perhaps takes it a tad too dreamily, even if his pace is relatively quick.

The third movement, an intentionally awkward funeral march, depicts a hunter’s fairy-tale burial, and it comes off as a sort of typical Mahler parody. It may be the young man of the narrative’s first glimpse of death, possibly a recollection by Mahler of one of his own youthful encounters with the death of a loved one. Stenz’s way with it is maybe a touch too superficial, but it still carries weight after its own bizarre Mahlerian fashion.

In the finale, Mahler conveys the panic “of a deeply wounded heart,” as the central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Nevertheless, Mahler, ever the spiritual optimist, wanted Man to triumph in the end, even though how Man will succeed is open to question. Here, in the final twenty minutes, Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing. I have to admit that despite all the energy Stenz and his players invest in this last segment, I would have liked hearing more individual expressiveness from them. Instead, while their music-making is undoubtedly exciting, it never seems to catch fire the way the performances of Solti (Decca), Mackerras (EMI), Horenstein (Unicorn), Bernstein (DG), and others do.

So what we get from Stenz is a robust, well-ordered, well-structured First Symphony without quite the insight, introspection, or sheer emotional boldness of the very best interpretations. I have no reservations, however, about saying it’s worth a listen, particularly if you’ve heard and enjoyed Stenz’s previous Mahler symphony recordings.

Made in the Cologne Philharmonic Hall in 2011, the sound of this hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD does a good job capturing the warm, sweet resonance of the acoustic. At the same time, it also appears reasonably clear and natural, with a modest degree of orchestral depth even in the two-channel mode to which I listened through an SACD player. In addition, a fairly taut dynamic impact and modestly deep bass help provide the music a lifelike quality, especially in the SACD layer.


1 comment:

  1. ..... and theres ist a cutting error in the first movement, and there are missing at least one beat. Maybe 3 beats.
    Listen first movement at 7:15
    Embarrassing !


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.

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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