tue 27/09/2016

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Markus Stenz on Mahler | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Markus Stenz on Mahler

Let's make a symphony - a very big one. Live-wire German interpreter explains his own special approach

Markus Stenz conducting Cologne's Gürzenich OrchestraAll conductor images by Catrin Moritz

Never mind the huge interpretative challenges; Mahler’s Eighth, dubbed the "Symphony of a Thousand" owing to the gargantuan forces the composer marshalled as conductor of its 1910 Munich premiere, needs an even greater mastery of logistics. Markus Stenz (b 1965), who has been chief conductor of Cologne’s 500-year old Gürzenich Orchestra since 2003 in addition to major posts at the Hallé and Hilversum's Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, had so far wielded a Mahler cycle of terrific impetus and fresh approach to detail. How would he get 600 or so singers and players to move forward with an equal litheness?

The answer came in a performance to mark 25 years of one of the world’s best concert halls, the Cologne Philharmonie, which took flight from the start and culminated in one of the biggest long-term ecstasy bursts I’ve ever experienced in a concert hall. Graham Rickson reviews the live recording for the German label Oehms Classics over on this week’s classical roundup. I met Stenz the morning after one of the performances to discuss the whys and wherefores as well as how his early days covering contemporary repertoire with the London Sinfonietta had affected what he does now, and why Mahler remains the greatest.

DAVID NICE: So this was the first time you’ve tackled the Eighth in your home city.

MARKUS STENZ: Yes – and the third time in my life. Every once in a while, probably once in a decade, I can have a go at it. The other outings were at the New Zealand Festival in 1996, and next with my then orchestra the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. We made a rather wonderful celebratory performance to mark 100 years of the Australian parliament, which sat for the first time in Melbourne, so we made a point of playing Mahler 8 in that same building, one of those big Victorian halls and I think we had 6000 people in the audience alone.

The forces for the first performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony in MunichI wondered whether there was ever an option to perform it in Cologne Cathedral. Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra chose St Paul's as the venue, and acoustically it was a disaster, though Radio 3 turned it into a performance you could hear.

So you got the virtual reality – no-one heard it in real life, but it was all there in the broadcast! No, I wouldn't even think of doing it in a cathedral, I don’t think it’s a piece for it. It needs to be carefully tailored to the venue. It's worth looking back at Mahler’s meticulous preparation for the first performance when Alfred Roller, his favourite stage designer at the Vienna Court Opera, came up with a layout of the stage in the big Munich venue, so that the music could work. There is a fascinating photo of that first performance (pictured above right) where you can see how the masses are disposed – he had almost 450 more people than we had last night. So tailoring it was our first step with the Philharmonie [Cologne's Philharmonic Hall]. We had as a point of reference the previous performances that had been done in the Philharmonie including the opening concert 25 years ago conducted by [Marek] Janowski, and you see the photos there and how they did it, and we went for a distinctly different approach in that we extended the platform, we pushed the orchestra closer to the audience and thus created the space for an extra 100 singers, ladies’ voices, on stage.

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