Mahler Symphony No 5
The Adagietto is suddenly, almost imperceptibly, there. It is the hallmark of any great performance of the symphony, and Abbado is in amongst the very select few as these magical bars materialize. It might even be the most beautiful, the most subtly inflected account of the movement we have yet heard on disc. Never mind Gilbert Kaplan's eight-minute watermark (Abbado actually takes 8'58''), feeling the ebb and flow, the inner pulse of this music is about finding its golden mean; it is about eliminating barlines and freeing the spirit from the letter of the score—whatever the tempo. This is how the music goes for Abbado: it's a song in the making, an invention of the moment, and these wonderful Berlin strings are one voice, infinitely pliable. How spontaneously the restless heart leaps with Mahler's central diversion; the breathless pianopianissimo to a barely grazed glissando towards the close is out of this world.
So too the huge central Scherzo, another of those testing movements separating natural Mahlerians from the would-bes. The key here is patience—respect for space, silence, atmosphere. As overlapping horns reach for their first major summit and panoramic vistas are promised, Mahler's critical pause bars come dramatically into play (skimp these at your peril). Abbado sits majestically atop the first of them: time stands still, all nature stops to listen. Mahler, the pantheist, is in his element. And all the elements here are beautifully, idiomatically characterized: the rustic but genteel waltz of the second subject, inbred rubatos positively slipping off the bow; the pizzicato variant, not too strict, a touch uncoordinated like an unschooled country band; the 'shy' solo oboe emerging so tentatively from this bucolic scene; the many quixotic changes of expression. And the charm. Not even Bernstein (also DG) quite matches Abbado's relish of the finale's airborne fantasy (how commonly this movement is driven to distraction): it's that delicate balance between tip-toeing sweetness and light and inherently rugged, foot-stomping good humour.
Mackerras (an impressive contender, not to be overlooked) comes up trumps here, too. And both he and Abbado take an appreciably more dispassionate view of the first movement than Bernstein (doesn't everybody?). Abbado steps back from the tragedy, his funeral march determined to keep up appearances, maintain dignity, the voice (so to speak) cracking only under the stress of Mahler's accentuation. There's a suitably rash development, precipitato horns leaping spectacularly for their high concert-F, and a splendidly morbid military wind band sound when the march returns centre-stage. Bernstein is at his most wilfully exciting in the second movement. You won't, for instance, find Abbado pulling back on the tempo as his Berlin strings dip deep at 9'04'', or indeed at 11'02'' (Wuchtig) where Bernstein effects a monstrously theatrical (and unsolicited) meno mosso, every instrument mired in despondency, only the trombones defiant. And fine though Abbado is, no one peaks at the climax—the shining trumpet-led premonition of the finale's chorale—quite like Bernstein. Both are special performances (nothing less could challenge the supremacy of Bernstein for me), both conductors and both orchestras right inside the spirit and sound of this score, Abbado much freer and less calculating over detail than he can sometimes be (and was in his earlier Chicago recording—10/81). In the eye of the second movement storm is an extraordinary passage for shell-shocked cellos over rolling timpani: it's rather like the Adagietto, only a select few get through to the subtext. Abbado is one.'