DVD Review- Tennstedt Conducts Mahler 5 (ICA Classics)

The home video revolution, in particular the advent of the DVD and YouTube, have fundamentally changed our understanding of the art of conducting, in ways both good and bad (more on the bad part in another post).

Things really began to change for the good when the two part series “The Art of Conducting” first appeared about 15 years ago. For many conductors, young and old, it was the first chance in a generation or more to see, and not just hear, the work of Fritz Busch,  Weingartner, Furtwangler, Koussevitzky, Mravinsky, Barbirolli, Reiner and many more.

It was a watershed for many of us. Furtwangler’s stock went up with many- it turns out he was more effective and less eccentric than received opinion had led us to believe. Reiner’s stock plummeted – he came off as rigid, frigid, uncommunicative and unresponsive to the sound of the orchestra.

Since then, there have been more historical reissues, and a wealth of new releases of great conductors of the last 40 years. For the first time, a conductor doing his or her first Mahler 1 can compare the bowings used by Haitink in Amsterdam, Tennstedt in Chicago, Bernstein in Vienna and Abbado in Lucerne from the comfort of home. You can see which horns stand up at the end and which don’t, what kind trumpets are used and what the seating was. Most importantly for those interested in the craft, one can study, at leisure, the connection of gesture and sound. You can see who beats the Scherzo in 3, who does it in 1.

Of course, there have been frustrations. Wonderful as the DVD revolution has been, the vast majority of available material features Abbado, Karajan, Bernstein or Rattle. Some of the most important conductors of the 20th C. have remained largely invisible even on YouTube. Thankfully, although one can’t get much of anything of the great Otmar Suitner on DVD, there are a number of interesting performances, well filmed, now on YouTube. Not so (as of last checking) for Mitropoulos, Boult, Gibson, Kurt Sanderling and many others.

Happily, ICA Classics have started a new series of historical reissues, and they’ve already begun to fill in some of the gaps in the record with performances documenting the work of conductors we should see more of, like Adrian Boult, Kurt Sandering and Charles Munch.

I don’t normally do reviews here, but I thought it might be fun to check out some of these new releases and ask four questions of each DVD. I’ll be sticking exclusively to conductors who are doing all their work in the next plane of existence.

1-    Does it offer a window into what made the featured conductor an important figure? Does it add anything new to our understanding of the musicians involved or the history of the art?

2-    What can a student of the art form learn from studying it?

3-    How good is it?

4-    Is this something I’d recommend to students of conducting and/or general classical music fans?

First up, the new recording of Mahler- Symphony no. 5 by Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic


1-    Does it offer a window into what made the featured conductor an important figure? Does it add anything new to our understanding of the musicians involved or the history of the art?

This is not the first DVD of Tennstedt conducting Mahler. His performances of the 1st and 8th Symphonies (with the Chicago Symphony and LPO respectively) have been available for sometime as a two disc set, and before that, were available separately on VHS.  There is also a fine DVD of Tennstedt conducting Wagner with the LPO, which is well-worth having. So, unlike Sanderling and Boult, this is not a first chance for people who missed him in his lifetime to see Tennstedt in the repertoire he loved best.

If you don’t know those videos, this is a great one to start with. It certainly demonstrates why Tennstedt was such a legend with the lucky listeners who got to hear him regularly in London in the 1980’s. It’s a fierce, deeply felt and thoroughly thought-through performance, and the LPO play with total  commitment.

2-     What can a student of the art form learn from studying it?

Tennstedt acquired a reputation among commentators for a somewhat eccentric technique, or even a lack of technique. To call his conducting eccentric is misleading, and to deride its competence or effectiveness is simply dishonest.

I think this misconception about his conducting grew out of two factors. First- Tennstedt was a very tall and rather gangly man (from what I can tell), and this led to him standing with a rather strange tilted and leaning posture. Even when his baton is working in a very orthodox way (which it usually was), he did look a little awkward just from how he stood. Secondly, as far as I can tell, Tennstedt conducted completely without vanity. You never, ever get the sense he was wasting any of his attention worrying about how he looked- his focus was completely on the music.

In fact, I think there’s a great deal to admire about his technique and his gestural language. This is a wild-sounding, edge of the seat Mahler 5, but if you watch Tennstedt’s use of the baton carefully, you’ll realize his gestures are incredibly small and focused and always in control. He rarely travels more than a few inches from one beat to another, but the beat has incredible, incredible intensity in it. He radiates and projects incredible, overpowering energy, while actually keeping his motions focused and centered, which enables him to maintain near-perfect control of tempo

The Scherzo of Mahler 5 is one of the more difficult movements in the literature to conduct. The “right” tempo for the beginning (yes, there is a right tempo) is one of the most uncomfortable in Mahler. Mahler knew what he was talking about when he said conductors would take it too fast for 50 years. Tennstedt handles the opening of the Scherzo effortlessly, and some of the gear changes are stunning in their precision. The “Nicht eilen”s at bar 60 and 108 are tight enough to make me smile every time I hear them in this performance, and the decadent waltz music  is unbelievably free and elegant. Mahler took his inspiration for this music  from these lines by Goethe:

“A shadowy doorway beckons you aside

Across the threshold of the girl’s house,

And her eyes promise refreshment….”

and Tennstedt and the LPO play it with just the right balance of sexuality and menace.  Tennstedt’s conducting is a technical masterclass in controlling tempo changes and rubatos throughout the Scherzo.


3-    How good is it?

I’ll cut to the chase.

This is the best Mahler 5 on DVD.

Previously, I would have given the crown to Haitink’s performance with the Concertgebouw, available only in the box-set of Mahler Kerstmatineesperformances.  This new Tennstedt release has the advantage of being available as single disc. Where he and the LPO surpass everyone is in rising to the twin challenges Mahler poses for every conductor- balancing a performance of the utmost vehemence and intensity with a cool eye for technical detail (especially tempo) and structure. Everyone knows the Tennstedt excelled at vehemence and intensity, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for his musical intelligence and technical command. When it counts most, Tennstedt’s sense of tempo and rubato is the best on record, and he does basically what is on the page, where many of today’s “objective” interpreters leave out a lot of Mahler’s very specific requests for tempo changes (whether they do this because they think Mahler was wrong or because they lack Tennstedt’s chops and confidence, I can’t say).

The sound is as good as one could hope for a TV broadcast from the acoustic black hole otherwise known as the Royal Festival Hall (it may be the best-sounding recording I’ve heard come out of that hall). The LPO strings are on great form (it was interesting to see rather younger versions of James Clark, now the leader of the RLPO and RSNO sitting no. 2 in the first violins, and Stephen Bryant, now leader of the BBC Symphony, sitting no. 3). They play with incredible engagement and passion. The horns are also impressive throughout, and the “Corno obbligato” solo in the Scherzo is pretty much above reproach, although it’s a pity he didn’t stand as Mahler asked (although in the 1980’s nobody yet did). Also, he doesn’t seem to do any of the ‘schaltrichter auf!” or “bell up” markings in the solo. That’s a pity, because it is otherwise a pretty flawless performance and could be a candidate for being definitive, but the sound lacks that last bit of insanity and breadth it would have had if the bell was right up in the air where it belonged.

It’s hard to imagine this performance  hasn’t been available before. The only possible explanation for it not being released years ago is that the trumpets did have a rather rough night (I can imagine some executive producer hearing the first big trumpet split in the 12th bar and saying “that’s it, we can’t release that’), but that’s live music, and although there are some splats and tuning issues, they do play with great commitment and class. I think DVD’s are far preferable to CDs, because they do bring us much closer to the sense of danger one has in concert. Perhaps the first four or five minutes of this performance sound a little on edge or nervous, but it’s that kind of opening. Ultimately, it is a performance of supreme confidence. Anyone who thinks Tennstedt was just a passionate eccentric who counted on a great pro band to sort out the technical details should see how quickly and commandingly he sorts out the timpanist when he comes in a bar early at figure 15 in the Scherzo (by the way- timpanists, can you tell me what is hard about this entrance? I got the same counting mistake in rehearsals from the timpanists the last two times I did the piece? Is it cursed?)

4-     Is this something I’d recommend to students of conducting and/or general classical music fans?

In both cases, yes. Conductors and people with an interest in conducting can learn a lot from watching Tennstedt, who is absolutely at the top of his game, delivering a performance of historic quality. While this disk doesn’t break as much new ground as some others in the ICA series (after all, we have seen Tennstedt conduct Mahler with the LPO before), it is one of the most exciting DVD’s I’ve seen in a long time. I’d recommend it to my students, and I’d give it to my Mom.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

4 comments on “DVD Review- Tennstedt Conducts Mahler 5 (ICA Classics)”

  1. DT

    Special trequest re Sanderling. Please could you have a look at the new DVD release of him conducting Schumann 4 and DLvdE ? I’m reluctant to shell out for it as his Berlin DLvdE is my holiest Mahler moment (haha!), and I’m not keen on the DVD soloists. But I’m desperate to see how Sanderling communicates. So, please !

  2. Kenneth Woods


    It’s on the list, but I am a little concerned about reviewing that one since I just released my own recording of the Das Lied and am recording the Schumann next year. Glass houses and all that….. Also want to avoid any hint of bias. That said, I have many of his CDs and am very excited to see what the conducting looks like. Watch this space.

  3. Erik K

    Great Suitner mention…I wish they would release some of his stuff.

    I kicked around the Haenchen Mahler 6 when I was at Cheapo Records in Minneapolis but ended up not getting it. I’ll be curious to see what you think of it down the line.

    Also, lots of Munch in there, but a lot of interesting rep. Bruckner 7? Munch? I’m fascinated.

  4. DT

    Don’t worry about any comparison with Sanderling. No-one comes close. Of course much depends on the camera work. In those days filming wasn’t as informed as it is now, and the camera migfht have igniored key moments. If the cameraman didn’t understand, we’d be left with what might not have been Sanderling’s finest performance.

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