Mahler's Symphony No 5
The Gramophone Choice
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
EMI 557385-2 (69‘ · DDD). Recorded live 2002. Buy from Amazon
Mahler’s Fifth is a terror to bring off but, brought off, is a joy beyond measure. It made a fine nuptial offering for Rattle and the Berliners on September 7, 2002 – festive yet challenging, a tragi-comic revel and a high-wire act to boot. ‘The individual parts are so difficult,’ wrote Mahler, ‘they call for the most accomplished soloists.’ Rattle brought the prodigious first horn to the apron of the stage for his obbligato contribution in the Scherzo. Mengelberg’s conducting score, which Mahler used for the work’s Amsterdam premiere in 1906, has an annotation to this effect, and the practice was followed at the work’s English premiere in 1945, but we’re left wondering what would have happened if Rattle hadn’t brought the player forward. EMI’s recording is splendidly explicit but the horn section, which plays a crucial role at key moments, seems oddly distant on CD.
The tutti sound Rattle draws from the orchestra is clean and sharply profiled, not unlike the Mahler sound Rafael Kubelík tended to favour. Rattle’s tempo for the Adagietto is a good one by modern standards (not too slow) and the string-playing has a lovely diaphanous quality, but you may find the playing over-nuanced.
Nowadays it isn’t unusual to hear rhythm and line sacrificed to detail and nuance as old-established symphony orchestras are made to rethink their readings by conductors schooled in the arcana of ancient performance practice. Rattle has done his fair share of this. What’s interesting about this live Mahler Fifth is the degree to which the detail is absorbed and the line maintained.
Like most latter-day conductors, Rattle tends to underplay the march element in the first movement. Mahler in his 1905 piano roll, Walter, and Haitink in his superb 1969 Concertgebouw recording all preserve this. Some may find the approach too dry-eyed in the long-drawn string threnody at fig 2. But an excess of feeling can damage both opening movements (the second is a mirror of the first) if the larger rhythm is obscured. Rattle, like Barbirolli and Bernstein in his superb Vienna Philharmonic recording, treats the threnody more as a meditation than a march, but the pulse isn’t lost and the attendant tempi are good. The frenzied B flat minor Trio is particularly well judged. The second movement is superb (the diminished horn contribution notwithstanding) and none but the most determined sceptic could fail to thrill to the sense of adventure and well-being Rattle and his players bring to the Scherzo and finale, even if Barbirolli (studio) and Bernstein (live) both reach the finishing line in rather more eloquent and orderly fashion than this talented but still occasionally fragile-sounding Berlin ensemble.
As a memento, the CD is a triumph of organisation and despatch. As a performance and as a recording, it has rather more character and bite than Abbado’s much admired 1993 Berlin version. Indeed, it can safely be ranked among the half dozen or so finest performances on record. It isn’t perfect: but do you know of one that is?
New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir John Barbirolli
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 566910-2 (74‘ · ADD). Recorded 1969. Buy from Amazon
Sir John Barbirolli’s Fifth occupies a special place in everybody’s affections: a performance so big in spirit and warm of heart as to silence any rational discussion of its shortcomings. Some readers may have problems with one or two of his sturdier tempi. He doesn’t make life easy for his orchestra in the treacherous second movement, while the exultant finale, though suitably bracing, arguably needs more of a spring in its heels. But against all this, one must weigh a unity and strength of purpose, an entirely idiomatic response to instrumental colour and texture (the dark, craggy hues of the first two movements are especially striking); and most important of all that very special Barbirollian radiance, humanity – call it what you will. One point of interest for collectors – on the original LP, among minor orchestral mishaps in the Scherzo, were four bars of missing horn obbligato (at nine bars before fig 20). Not any more! The original solo horn player, Nicholas Busch, has returned to the scene of this momentary aberration (Watford Town Hall) and the absent bars have been ingeniously reinstated. There’s even a timely grunt from Sir John, as if in approval. Something of a classic, then; EMI’s remastering is splendid.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein
DG 477 6334GGP (75‘ · DDD). Recorded live 1987. Buy from Amazon
Bernstein’s tempo for the Funeral March in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony became slower in the 23 years that separated his New York CBS recording from this one, made during a performance in Frankfurt. The strings-only passage at fig 15 in the first movement is exquisitely played, as is the long horn solo in the Scherzo. And there’s one marvellously exciting moment – the bright gleam of trumpet tone at one bar before fig 29 in the second movement. Best of all is Bernstein himself, here at his exciting best, giving a demonic edge to the music where it’s appropriate and building the symphony inexorably to its final triumph.
Thanks to a very clear and well-balanced recording, every subtlety of scoring, especially some of the lower strings’ counterpoint, comes through as the conductor intended. One is made aware of the daring novelty of much of the orchestration, of how advanced it must have sounded in the early years of this century. Here we get the structure, the sound and the emotion. The Adagietto isn’t dragged out, and the scrupulous attention to Mahler’s dynamics allows the delightfully silken sound of the Vienna strings to be heard to captivating advantage, with the harp well recorded too. Bernstein is strongest in Mahler when the work itself is one of the more optimistic symphonies with less temptation for him to add a few degrees more of Angst.
Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Claudio Abbado
Video director Michael Beyer
EuroArts 205 4079; 205 4074 (74’ · 16:9 · 1080i · PCM stereo, DTS 5.1 and DTS-HD MA· 0). Recorded live 2004. Buy from Amazon
Claudio Abbado’s Mahler Fifth is magnificent. It helps that the band is the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, that most exalted of all ad hoc ensembles, rather than the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. It does make a difference in Lucerne to have a raft of seasoned players joining the core contingent from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The visual dimension is stronger, too, with the option to switch to the so-called ‘Conductor Camera’ and experience Abbado from a player’s perspective. If this strikes some readers as a gimmick I can only say that I welcome it as a natural use of the new medium.
Listen without the images, though, and it quickly becomes apparent that Abbado’s previous, audio-only account (DG, subsequently revamped for SACD) is sonically superior, with greater hall ambience and less tendency for wind, brass and percussion to lose themselves in the mix. It’s not as if the conductor’s conception has changed a great deal. His Fifth has always displayed a tad less inner intensity than some of the great readings of the past but with compensating elegance and grace. Once again the famous Adagietto steals in with a magic inevitability that few have matched. Abbado’s music-making is as fine as you will find anywhere today and his admirers should be well satisfied.