Markus Stenz conducts Mahler in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Markus Stenz (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 17.11.2022. (PCG)

Chris Stock receives Royal Philharmonic Society award (c) Yusef Bastawi

Mahler – Symphony No.9 in D (1909)

I have noted on many occasions that interpretations of Mahler’s symphonies tend to fall between two extremes. Conductors of what one might dub the ‘Haitink school’ tend to emphasise the basic unity of Mahler’s formal symphonic approach, occasionally to the extent of toning down some of the quirkier characteristics of his orchestral sounds. The other extreme, the ‘Solti/Bernstein school’ (one takes these titles for convenience from the pioneers of Mahler performance in the 1960s), stresses the emotional content of the music and gives full rein to Mahler’s instructions for shrieking woodwind, trenchant brass and so on. The former school, giving precedence to what other critics describe as musical priorities, seems to me to miss a considerable amount of the point of the Mahler’s writing. As an experienced conductor, Mahler would have been well aware of the often-idiosyncratic effects he was specifying in his scores. For example, when he told the horns or clarinets to raise the bells of their instruments towards the ceiling, he was risking the very real possibility that they would go out of tune. Conductors disregard his carefully detailed instructions at the real peril of emasculating the music. On the other hand, one should be slightly wary about his specifications in the Ninth Symphony, which he never had the opportunity to conduct in public and then to make adjustments to the instructions on the page.

To judge by John Quinn’s review (click here) of Markus Stenz’s recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in 2014, he seemed to assign the conductor firmly to the more ‘symphonic’ style of Haitink and his followers, while acknowledging Stenz’s willingness to indulge the composer in some of his more characteristic demands. This was similar to what Thomas Søndergård adopted when he conducted this orchestra in its last performance of the symphony in this hall in February 2014. What became apparent very early in this traversal of the score, however, was that Stenz has substantially changed his approach over the intervening years. Time and again he positively encouraged the woodwinds to shriek out as if in pain, at climaxes dominated by the shrill sounds of piccolo and E-flat clarinet; the trombones to give a rasping reverberation to their lower notes which dominated the whole of the orchestral texture; or Lenny Sayer to project his bass clarinet gurgles with a goblin-like sense of delight.

This was Mahler conducting at its most frenetic and most Bernsteinian, treating the music as a personal statement of irony, anguish and agony which seemed positively aggrieved. There were times when this resulted in a certain fragmentation of the form, especially in the second movement when the waltz-like passages pressed urgently forward in contrast to the more relaxed Ländler textures elsewhere. The Presto coda to the Rondo-Burleske third movement took off like a bat out of hell. On the other hand, the Adagio finale, after a weighty beginning and a surprisingly urgent acceleration in the central section, became almost completely becalmed some two minutes before the end; the low cello lines faded into almost total inaudibility and the Adagissimo coda for muted strings was refined almost to the point of extinction. It will be interesting to see how far the BBC engineers can reflect these extreme dynamic contrasts in the hall when the performance is broadcast. The programme informed us that it will feature on Radio 3 in concert, although no date was given.

It will be evident from the foregoing that I would not always wish to hear Mahler’s Ninth played in this ultra-histrionic fashion, although it worked well in the context of a live performance. The conductor’s technique, beckoning and beseeching his players with expressive gestures, brought back decided memories of Bernstein (albeit with no sweeping baton, and no would-be Olympic athletic high jumps). Some of Stenz’s more unexpected tempo adjustments seemed to lead to some orchestral unsteadiness and or tiredness, but on the whole the orchestra responded well to his lead and clear intentions. And it is surely better to hear Mahler at full stretch in this operatic manner than reduced to neutered good manners suited to the supposedly more rarified atmosphere of the traditional concert hall. The Royal Albert Hall Prommers would have loved it, and indeed the audience here cheered the performance to the rafters. It was odd to give the work without any coupling (and therefore no interval) and perhaps this perceived short measure may have deterred some people from attendance; the stalls were surprisingly thinly populated for a Mahler performance in this hall. But it is hard to see what other item could possibly have measured up against an earth-shattering iconoclastic performance like this. It will be very interesting to see how it sounds in the cold light of day over the radio airwaves.

Before the concert, Chris Stock, the principal percussionist of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, was presented with an award from the Royal Philharmonic Society for his work with the promotion of orchestral music in deprived areas of Patagonia, which originated from the visit the orchestra made to the region in 2016.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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