Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No 5 in C-sharp minor
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov
rec. 2021, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
PENTATONE PTC5187021 
How this latest instalment of Semyon Bychkov’s emerging Mahler cycle from Prague is received will, I suspect, rest on responses to the second movement. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Tony Duggan’s monumental Mahler survey here on MWI for directing me to what remains the most consistently satisfying of Mahler 5s – that by Rudolf Barshai and the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie. What was distinctive about that account was the way in which Barshai drew the first two movements of the symphony much closer to those of the symphony’s second half. The second movement in particular was less dark and more nocturnal where the mighty scherzo third movement was painted in more menacing hues than usual.
I say all this by way of introduction to Bychkov’s view of the second movement which in many ways is cut from similar cloth. What is highly distinctive about Bychkov is how string dominated his view of this movement is. I have never heard before any links between this sardonic danse macabre and the famous Adagietto of the third movement but there they are as clear as day. In Bychkov’s hands what we get in this second movement is passion rather than neurosis- the Czech strings rise magnificently to the challenge. It was such a jolt that it has had me wondering how much of what we think of as the Mahler tradition is a product of the Age of Anxiety of the Sixties. The really important thing is that this conception of the movement works.
As with the Barshai version, the whole balance of the symphony is altered. The work becomes less agonised but ultimately richer and more varied. As I hope I have made clear Bychkov’s account doesn’t lack for fire and intensity. His view of that Adagietto is as an appropriately tender love song without a hint of death wish. The only agonies here are those of an ardent lover. I initially thought that this was Mahler seen through the filter of Tchaikovsky and whilst I have always speculated how much Mahler’s orchestration owes a little debt to the Russian’s music, I think such an opinion sells Bychkov short. This is Mahler where the continuities through the Wunderhorn symphonies to the Fourth symphony are audible in the Fifth rather than it representing a complete break – one of the earliest Wunderhorn songs is quoted in the finale after all. The account of the finale is on the laidback side of things though the final pages are suitably theatrical. The mood is more festive than triumphant which, to be honest, made a pleasant change.
Perhaps another way of describing this recording is that it is a romantic view. Listen to the whooping horns at the climax of the chorale section of the second movement (I can’t be the only one hearing Mahler the great Tristan conductor in this passage) or the echoing, dark forest depths of the third movement.
Many will of course miss the more expressionist manner of a Tennstedt and I wouldn’t give up the first two movements of the Barbirolli version for all that his finale is a bit of a shambles. Likewise I don’t think Bychkov has quite the sheer personality of Barshai and his remarkable, nay slightly terrifying German youngsters – try the apocalyptic crash that finally shatters Barshai’s second movement and you will see what I mean. But Bychkov’s version opens up a very different way of seeing this virtually ubiquitous symphony and he delivers on that vision with great panache and total commitment from all involved. Bychkov has emerged in the last few years as an unmissable conductor and the thought of what he might do with the Sixth symphony after hearing this Fifth has me tingling with anticipation.
Previous review: Ralph Moore (October 2022)
Published: November 29, 2022