Gürzenich Orchestra – Mahler 5 … Punkte … Leonore No.3

Symphony No.5
Schubert, orch. David Matthews
Ständchen, D920b [BBC commission: world premiere]
Schubert, orch. Trojahn
Bei dir allein, D866/2 [BBC commission: world premiere]
Schubert, orch. Colin Matthews
Nacht und Träume, D827 [BBC commission: world premiere]
Schubert, orch. Glanert
Das Lied im Grünen, D917 [BBC commission: world premiere]
Leonore No.3, Overture

Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano)

Apollo Voices (women’s voices)

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln
Markus Stenz

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 22 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Markus StenzYou can’t accuse Markus Stenz and his Gürzenich Orchestra of short-changing the audience. A programme lasting just under three-and-a-half hours (including two intervals) of music-making of the highest quality is pretty good value in anyone‘s book. This was the debut of Cologne’s oldest orchestra, the first Proms performance of Stockhausen’s Punkte and the world premiere of contemporary orchestrations of four Schubert songs.

This seemingly bizarre programming was as a result of wishing to replicate the running order (Mahler – Schubert – Beethoven) of the first performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – given in October 1904 with the composer conducting the Gürzenich Orchestra. As an update, the Schubert songs were given a contemporary makeover and the addition of Punkte was as a tribute to one of Cologne’s finest sons who would have been 80 on this day.

In contrast to Valery Gergiev’s recent Mahler cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra, Stenz’s account of the Fifth Symphony was notably understated and refined. Beautifully balanced and light in string tone this was a performance where every detail was allowed to shine, every nuance delineated, and the full range of Mahler’s tonal colourings given full reign.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)The opening funeral-march movement had a wistful air about it, sadness but not resignation; strings were subdued perhaps a little too much, but there was a refreshing lack of bombast, which too commonly afflicts this music. The second movement was a mixed bag, the opening passages suitably fast and frenetic, never histrionic but perhaps lacking the last bit of ‘vehemence’ (Mahler’s marking). The slower episodes found Stenz in reflective mood, finding areas of light and shade. All this was achieved by an orchestra and conductor that understand what it is to play softly and how much more effective it can be.

The scherzo was on the whole delightfully fresh and dance-like. There were some wobbly moments for the principal trumpet as there had been in the first two movements and at times the strings lacked a little character especially in the Ländler passages. There were times when Stenz got a little bogged down in the slower parts and which interrupted the flow of the music.

It was in the Adagietto which found Stenz and the orchestra at its finest. Although the strings were a little less full than ideal, Stenz, who relinquished his baton for this movement conducted at a steady tempo, perfectly capturing the yearning qualities of what is essentially a love-song to his wife Alma without ever lingering and turning it into the all-too-common dirge. It was a model account of how to make this music moving without resorting to over-slow tempos and exaggerated phrasing. The rondo-finale had a wonderful sense of momentum, beautifully fleet of foot and expertly paced, and built excitingly to a final triumph, which had a sense of rightness to it one rarely experiences in Mahler performances nowadays. Wonderful stuff!

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Punkte underwent several revisions after its original version was published over fifty years ago. (It was first heard in Cologne.) This performance took into account the composer’s last (1993) thoughts. Punkte (Points) takes its cue from the music of Messiaen and Webern where ”the durations and dynamics of notes are subjected to the same serial processes as the pitches”. In the final version of Punkte presented here, very few of the ‘points’ of the original remain. Instead we are presented with huge groups of notes, expanding up and down in pitch and increasing in density.

It’s all very Stockhausen – and very demanding both on the orchestra and the audience. Certainly it would be hard to think of a better performance of this work with the dense textures of Stockhausen’s writing brilliantly revealed by the Gürzenich Orchestra. The wind section in particular coped magnificently with the continuous notes, the sustained trills and the glissandos, Stockhausen‘s writing seeming to push instruments to their very limits.

Angelika Kirchschlager. ©lukasbeck.com The problems for four contemporary composers charged with orchestrating the same Schubert songs that were on the original Mahler 5 programme in 1904 are manifold. What exactly is the purpose of this exercise? Is it to add something of your own and change the original tone of the songs? Is it to add a contemporary touch? Or to flesh out the music? Detlev Glanert offered one explanation: an opportunity to add “more colour than you can produce with a piano”. Glanert’s orchestration of “Das Lied in Grünen” was just that, floating strings adding intensity and warmth to Angelika Kirchschlager’s deliciously creamy soprano. This along with Manfred Trojahn’s “Bei dir allein” were the most ‘Schubertian’ arrangements, keeping the essence and, to some degree, intimacy of the original songs without drowning the soloist in orchestral tone.

The arrangements by the Matthews brothers were a different matter. David Matthews’s “Ständchen”, the most ambitious of the songs, added a small female choir and a coda of Matthews’s own as he envisaged Schubert composing it thirty years after his death. The intention was to move the song into “a different world”, which sounded more like Richard Strauss in 1898 rather than Schubert in 1858. Maybe it’s not what David Matthews intended but it was certainly “different”. Straussian also springs to mind for Colin Matthews’s scoring of the brief “Nacht und Träume”, Kirchschlager’s voice coated with a honey-sweet orchestration which was a delight to listen to – but was it Schubert anymore?

Leonore No.3 was the icing on the cake. Stenz achieved a luminosity in the string-playing that was thrilling to behold. There was real tension and urgency that propelled the music forward to an inexorably exciting climax. The sound was clean, the balances near-perfect and the ensemble-playing spot on. This was as vital an interpretation as I have heard in a long time. There was more … an encore in the form of the ‘Transformation Scene’ from the first act of Wagner’s “Parsifal”.

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