July 19, 2012


Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Alexandra Petersamer, mezzo-soprano; Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw, Damen des Tschechischen Philharmonischen Chors Brünn and Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Jeannette Wernecke, soprano; Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $18.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $18.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $18.99.

      Gustav Mahler knew exactly how he wanted his symphonies to sound.  A famed and brilliant conductor, Mahler peppered his scores with notations, clearly indicating tempos, dynamics, subtleties of musical shading, minute elements of emphasis and de-emphasis, and rationales for his decisions on pacing and orchestration.  This does not make Mahler’s symphonies easy to conduct – the scores are tremendously complex, and some of his comments, while undoubtedly crystal-clear to him, are less so to others – but Mahler certainly provided one of the most accurate road maps to performance ever given by any composer.  So why, it has to be asked, are readings that try carefully to follow what Mahler clearly indicated he wanted rather bland?  A well-known case in point is Gilbert Kaplan’s studious recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” which is about as close to following the composer’s directions as any recording has ever been but which lacks the fire and involvement of many other performances.  The readings by most famed Mahler conductors tend to deviate, sometimes in significant ways, from what the composer called for – dating back to Bruno Walter’s emotional focus and Leonard Bernstein’s dynamism and intensity.  Wrongheaded these performances could be, but they were never uninteresting or uninvolving.

      Most modern performances tend to hew rather closely to Mahler’s expressed intentions, with deviations here and there and some personalization based on a conductor’s preferences in tempo and instrumental emphasis.  But no one thoroughly rethinks Mahler, challenging his written indications and modifying his symphonies’ sound to a significant extent.  No one, that is, until Gabriel Feltz, whose ongoing Mahler cycle on the Münster-based Dreyer Gaido label (the brainchild of Michael Dreyer and Hugo Germán Gaido) is the most unusual and most controversial set of the symphonies in recent years.  These are live recordings, released essentially at the rate of one a year: the performance of Symphony No. 7 dates to 2007, No. 6 to 2008, No. 5 to 2009, No. 3 to 2010 and No. 4 to 2011.  Feltz provides his own booklet notes for the performances, each set of notes including specific musical examples illustrating his approach to particular interpretative issues.  And Feltz uses the booklet notes to argue, again and again, that even if Mahler said he wanted things done a certain way, he, Feltz, has good reason for doing them differently.

      These are not small differences, either, and some will border on sacrilege for many, perhaps most, fans of Mahler’s music.  For example, Mahler made it clear that the march theme in the first movement of Symphony No. 3 was to be played at the same tempo each time it appears.  Feltz knows this and even draws attention to it in his writing – and then explains why he does not follow the composer’s instructions.  In Symphony No. 4, the evenness of the entire work places it in a celestial sphere that makes it the most placid of all Mahler’s symphonies.  Feltz knows this – and deliberately shakes things up with a first movement whose frequent extreme tempo changes propel the music with far more excitement than in other performances, albeit at the cost of the work’s intended calm.  In Symphony No. 6, all conductors have to think through the controversy about whether to use two or three hammer blows in the final movement, but this is not what concerns Feltz at all: his booklet notes, which have the most extensive musical illustrations offered for any of these releases, deal entirely with the question of whether the Scherzo should be placed second or third (Feltz argues very decisively that it should go second).

      Feltz’s written commentaries could easily be dismissed as academic or even trivial, except that they are so clearly reflected in the pacing and sound of these performances with the Stuttgart Philharmonic, of which Feltz has been principal conductor since 2004.  The orchestra responds beautifully to everything that Feltz asks of it, and he asks a lot.  He seeks a genuine symphonic structure, an overarching connectedness, in Symphony No. 3, and if he does not quite find it, the seeking itself is fascinating, as the first movement lurches through episodes rather than proceeding at an integrated pace to build to its conclusions.  Details of orchestration are beautifully brought out throughout the symphony, with the naïveté of the third movement, including its posthorn solo, wonderfully contrasted with the very human depths of Alexandra Petersamer’s heartfelt and elegant singing in the fourth (texts for the fourth and fifth movements are not provided – a flaw in what is otherwise an elegant presentation).  The fifth movement has a darker and dourer central section than usual, the better to highlight the brightness of its start and end, and the finale is taken at a somewhat faster pace than is usually heard, although it is no less emotionally heartfelt for all that.  Symphony No. 4 also features lovely vocalizing, by Jeannette Wernecke, whose effectiveness comes from her managing to keep her voice sounding more childlike than do most sopranos in this music.  Feltz’s first movement of this symphony is quite unlike any other conductor’s, with greater tempo contrasts and, in some sections, a near-breakneck pace that takes some getting used to; and he emphasizes the eerie elements of the second movement well.  The third movement starts at more of a walking pace than the marked Poco adagio, but Feltz makes it convincing throughout – and a very well-conceived prelude to the finale.

      Mahler’s three “middle” symphonies, without vocal elements, all get unusual treatment that proves highly involving to listeners willing to cast off preconceived notions of how the music should sound.  Feltz seems at particular pains to do different things with No. 5.  Mahler specifically marked the first movement Wie ein Kondukt, but this would be a very confused funeral procession indeed, as Feltz alternates stately march tempo with quite a few others – managing to make the changes mostly logical, so the music flows freely even if not as the composer intended.  The second movement, though, definitely starts Mit größter Vehemenz, as Mahler wished; yet this is a movement in which Feltz feels he needs to add a note that Mahler never included in any of his 10 versions of the symphony – this is one fearless conductor.  The symphony’s third movement sounds like a tone poem, while the fourth lapses into quiet stasis, as calm as a vast mountain lake under a clear blue sky – and the finale builds to a headlong conclusion whose intensity is likely to take listeners by surprise.

      Symphony No. 6 strides boldly forward, but Feltz deliberately makes the gentler central portion of the first movement an island of nearly complete calm, so when the headlong propulsion returns, it is even more dramatic than usual.  This is a common pattern for Feltz: bringing out contrasts between sections of individual movements as well as among the movements themselves.  He follows this approach in the second movement as well, also being sure to highlight instrumental details (especially percussion touches).  The third movement is gentle, meandering, questing and questioning, providing considerable respite from the hectic first two and an oasis of calm before the intense finale.  Feltz builds the first part of the final movement slowly and ominously, then steadily increases the intensity, strongly emphasizing timpani and percussion as the music becomes much more frenetic – although never slipping out of control.  Feltz is always ready with a little something extra: a bit faster tempo here, a slightly slower one there, one orchestral section or another suddenly brought forth and as suddenly sliding back into the overall sound.  The very end of this symphony slips away completely before the concluding outburst, which seems to stun the audience into silence – there is no applause for 15 seconds.

      For Symphony No. 7, which remains the toughest nut to crack for most conductors, Feltz is surprisingly (for him) accepting of Mahler’s score and statements.  He takes the work pretty much at face value, not seeking in it the irony that other conductors look for.  Thus, the symphony moves from the darkness and complexity of the first movement to the straightforward (for Mahler) brightness and ebullience of the finale.  This is quite an effective approach, and seems closer to the composer’s original intention than are Feltz’s interpretations of the other symphonies.  Yet this is not to say that Feltz always follows the score and the composer’s notes – here too he makes his own emendations.  For example, he is quite free with tempos as the first movement comes to its climactic conclusion.  And in one fifth-movement section, Mahler calls for a crescendo in the violins and simultaneous decrescendo in the flutes – a passage requiring considerable musicianly dexterity to bring off.  Feltz simply ignores the dynamics and brings out the primary theme, which makes perfect sense and sounds right.  Make no mistake: Feltz’s decisions require some adaptability on the part of listeners already familiar with Mahler performances.  The opening of the finale of Symphony No. 7, to cite one example among many, is beautifully and very dramatically contrasted with the soft and delicate close of the second Nachtmusik that precedes it – but is taken at a much faster tempo than listeners are likely to have heard before.

      Because of Mahler’s known excellence as a conductor and the fact that he conducted his own symphonies and made copious notations about their performance, his works have tended to be treated more deferentially in the concert hall than those of Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart.  There is nothing wrong with that: if other composers had left equally clear instructions about how to play their music, conductors would certainly take those remarks into equally careful consideration.  But what Feltz does that is so intriguing is to show that even with Mahler, there is no need to be slavish to the score (or, in Mahler’s case, to the score-plus-commentary).  It is possible to look beyond what the composer wrote, and even what he intended, to re-create his music in new ways that may not be “authentic” but that are nevertheless true to his spirit and filled with a sense of excitement, adventure and exploration.  Feltz’s first five Mahler recordings are all those things and more: they are utterly convincing on their own terms, if not necessarily on those that Mahler himself set down.

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