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Stenz's Mahler 9

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Mahler, Symphony Nos. 9 and 10, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, M. Stenz
(Oehms, 2014)
One of the things that Markus Stenz did, as Kapellmeister of the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln (succeeding James Conlon in 2003), was to record a complete cycle of Mahler's symphonies with the band that gave the world premieres of two of the composer's symphonies, nos. 3 and 5. The final volume of Stenz's traversal, combining the ninth with the single-movement Adagio of the tenth, appeared last August, coinciding with the end of Stenz's tenure in Cologne. Here in Washington and Baltimore we will be hearing a lot more of Stenz's work, because he has been appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, beginning next season. We offer these thoughts also by way of a preview of this evening's performance of Mahler's ninth symphony by the National Symphony Orchestra, under Christoph Eschenbach: everyone should take any chance to hear this gorgeous score.

At 78'08" Stenz's interpretation is on the rapid side of recorded timings, but as our resident Mahler expert notes in his wide-ranging survey, long recordings can feel the most energized, and vice-versa. Although commentary tends to focus on the outer movements of this symphony, the contrast with the raucous inner movements is what helps establish the transcendent experience of listening to the slow movements. Scholar Henry-Louis de La Grange described the ninth's second movement as the "most ironic and grotesque" of Mahler's scherzos, with a tempo marking calling for a performance that is etwas täppisch und sehr derb (somewhat ungainly and very coarse). Stenz certainly goes for a broad, almost parodied dance in both the Ländler and the waltz. Theodor Adorno, in his book Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, wrote that "the Burlesque [third movement] has a reckless gaiety, as if at any moment it might plunge into a bottomless void," and Stenz and his musicians seem bent on bringing out the brutal parody of counterpoint Mahler intended as a jab at his "brothers in Apollo" (meaning the academics and critics who attacked his music).

The finale of this symphony, a slow meditation on the gruppetto figure that first bubbles up in the orchestra in the third movement, is always moving, although here it does feel a bit rushed, not exactly perfunctory but not expansive somehow. I am much more taken by Stenz's handling of the first movement, which is generally my favorite, the key to unlocking the meaning of the symphony. La Grange makes much of Mahler's citation of the "Lebewohl" motif from Beethoven's op. 81a piano sonata ("Les adieux") in this movement: this is the three-note figure of mi-re-do that opens that sonata, over which Beethoven wrote the word "Lebewohl" (Farewell). Mahler uses this motif repeatedly but leaves it incomplete (mi-re), as if he cannot complete the word. The gesture is likely related to some of the things the composer said during this period, when he had recently lost his daughter and learned of how his heart condition was going to impact his normal physical activity: the incompleteness of the motif seems to be related to his unwillingness to bid life adieu just yet (the precise opposite of how the symphony is often interpreted). Mahler harps on the motif through the end of the first movement, where the oboes have the last statement of the mi-re motif (F# and held E), which hangs unresolved, with the final do (D) provided only by the pizzicato strings (the ethereal final note is held by piccolo, plus harp and cellos on flageolet-tone harmonics).

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