Mahler: Symphony No. 7 (SACD review)

Markus Stenz, Gurzenich-Orchester Koln. Oehms Classics OC 652.

Oh, joy. Another live recording.

Readers who wish to avoid having to read a personal rant may safely move on to the next paragraph. I mean, even the phrase annoys me. Is a studio recording or one without an audience a “dead recording”? I know that many conductors and record companies swear by recordings made before a live audience, saying it makes the performance more spontaneous and all. Leonard Bernstein insisted on doing most of his recordings live from the early Seventies on, saying that he liked the results better. Maybe he felt the audience inspired him the way no empty hall could. I dunno. What I do know is that I’ve heard very few live recordings I thought sounded better than more-controlled studio productions. In a live recording the engineer has to minimize audience noise either by placing the microphones too close to or too far away from the orchestra for my liking, and still I usually hear or sense the audience’s presence. Then there are the unfortunate bursts of applause that some engineers, conductors, or record companies persist in retaining. It seems to me that the primary reason for most live recordings is economic. It’s expensive to pay an orchestra for a studio recording session, and, therefore, a paying audience helps subsidize the recording costs.

That said, there is surely little to criticize about the performance on the present disc. Markus Stenz has been the conductor of the Gurzenich Orchestra Cologne since 2003, and the orchestra itself is one of the oldest in Europe, tracing its origins back to 1827. Moreover, the orchestra premiered a number of big works in its time, including both the Mahler Third and Fifth Symphonies. Furthermore, Stenz himself has already proved his worth in Mahler by recording most of the symphonies and songs to good effect. His Seventh is no exception.

So, what’s the Seventh all about, this typically massive Mahler symphony? The conventional answer is that it’s a transitional work, connecting the darker Sixth Symphony to the triumphant Eighth. Of course, musical scholars are keen on pointing out how Mahler interconnected all nine (or ten or eleven) of his symphonies, forming one grand musical statement. If there is a sublime scheme in things, the Seventh has long been the neglected stepchild of the lot. While the other symphonies get all the love, the Seventh often goes wanting.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote the Symphony No. 7 in E minor in 1904-05, and it is probably his most biographical work. Along with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Seventh forms a middle trio of Mahler symphonies, all of them purely orchestral, with the Seventh being the oddest of the group. Even more so than most of Mahler’s works, its five movements are open to multiple interpretations, and with practically every conductor on Earth having recorded them, we get a variety of readings. I remember one critic once explaining that the symphony was a recounting by Mahler of his trip to the countryside, complete with his packing of suitcases, traveling through rural roads, along pastures, and on to his destination. Other critics see its five movements more generally as a journey from dusk until dawn or a night walk into morning, a kind of eccentric, extended nocturne.

Maestro Stenz takes a more middling approach than most conductors, attempting to make the music all things to all people. He opens the symphony (when "Nature roars") on an appropriately heavy note, setting us up as Mahler intended for a journey from darkness into light, for as the composer himself commented, it was a work of "predominantly cheerful, humoristic content." Well, whether you believe that or not is beside the point. I suppose you could say that most of Mahler's work was "humoristic" if you count the various ironic, sardonic movements.

Let's say that Stenz carries out the composer's instructions that "the music must always contain a longing for beyond this world." Stenz provides an airy, singing, otherworldly quality to the playing. This is particularly evident in the two Nachtmusik interludes that bookend the middle movement. These serenades have a lilting yet shadowy air about them, the second one more pastoral than the first.

Then, speaking of "shadowy," the central Scherzo is a kind of demonic dance macabre, which Stenz pulls off pretty well, without making it too melodramatic. Although it's still a little creepy, it's never a caricature of itself. It seems more of an inevitable piece of the bigger composition than sometimes occurs when a conductor gets carried away with the bizarre nature of Mahler's creation. The unrest is there, but it's mostly just mysterious without being cacophonous.

That brings us to the Finale, one of Mahler's more unruly movements. Many listeners hear echos of Wagner's Meistersinger in it, the fairground, the hustle and bustle, and, naturally, the jubilant fanfares. They're surely hard to miss. Stenz guides us through the hurly-burly pretty successfully, never letting the music simply march along from one Wagnerian crescendo to another but smoothly laying out the plan and seamlessly connecting the dots. In other words, Stenz ensures that Mahler's music remains of a whole, building and releasing the conflicts and stresses in perfectly natural, free-flowing rhythms, ending on a wonderfully triumphant note. It's a most enjoyable reading.

Producer and engineer Dieter Oehms recorded the music live for multichannel and two-channel stereo SACD, June 23-27, 2012 in the Kolner Philharmonie (Cologne Philharmonic Hall), Koln, Germany. I listened only to the two-channel SACD layer where I found the sonic value of the live recording remained high despite the relatively close miking. There is a moderately good sense of depth to the orchestra, and we get a reasonably wide dynamic range and impact. However, the miking also reveals flaws in the orchestral execution. What's more, the midrange sounds a tad too soft, warm, and weighty much of the time where you might expect more transparency (the orchestration is lighter than in most Mahler symphonies). High-end extension sounds impressive, and occasional bass thumps make their mark. One almost never hears the audience, thankfully, but there is a slight background noise present during quieter passages.

Oh, and there is no applause at the end to interrupt our final appreciation of the music. With no applause and a quiet audience, it’s almost like a non-live recording. Which is what they should have done in the first place.

For some years now my favorite recordings of the Mahler Seventh have been those from Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, his earlier analogue account for its greater tension and his later digital one for its greater beauty (both for Philips). As for Stenz, his interpretation holds up pretty well by comparison, offering some of the same combinations of tenseness and delight. Nevertheless, the Gurzenich Orchestra cannot match the Concertgebouw for sheer richness of tone, lushness of character, or precision of playing.

One last note: While the music never sounds rushed, Stenz is able to move it along well enough to fit on a single disc.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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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