> Gustav Mahler - Symphony No 5 [TB]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5
Das Lied von der Erde*
*Agnes Baltsa (mezzo soprano), Klaus König (tenor)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
Rec 1978, *1982-4, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS 5 74849 2 [2CDs: 75.40 + 66.56]

 

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This reissue of two performances by one of the great Mahler interpreters is a major event in the recorded music world, even if it is not a new one.

In the later part of his career, Tennstedt developed a close relationship with the London Philharmonic Orchestra as their principal conductor, and was noted for his Mahler performances in particular. Their recordings together for EMI covered the complete Mahler symphonies and made a great impression.

Tennstedt in fact issued two recordings of the Fifth for EMI: this one from 1978 and a live recording from the Royal Festival Hall, made some ten years later. The latter had a mixed reception, admired for its intensity but criticised for some indulgences of tempo.

Such problems do not apply here, and full marks to EMI for the digital remastering by Simon Gibson. The opening trumpet fanfare is impressive indeed, not least for the way in which the crescendo builds until the orchestra follows the fanfare with the utmost force. The lamenting strings of the funeral march are the natural foil to this immediate expressionist crisis, ensuring that the contrasting sections develop with all the required tumult and anguish.

The second movement, marked 'With the utmost vehemence', continues the insistence of this intensity, as it must, until in the later stages Tennstedt releases a foretaste of what will be the clinching final chorale. The ebb and flow of tension and relaxation are particularly well handled in this movement.

The central Scherzo has a tempo which lets the rhythm make its emphasis, just as Mahler insisted it should. The LPO horns, and the orchestra in general, are at their virtuoso best here, and the percussionists add their contributions most effectively. In the final climax of the coda the sound becomes somewhat congested, revealing perhaps that this is a remastering of a twenty-year-old recording. To be fair, Mahler's orchestration does not exactly make things easy for the recording engineers.

The Adagietto is slow and expressively poignant, with highly effective shadings of dynamic.. Out of this the Rondo-finale emerges brightly, with its bouncing rhythms and lively principal theme. Seldom can the symphonic momentum and cohesive flow of this music have been more compellingly delivered, until the release of the full glory of the brass chorale (with its subtle links back to movement two), bringing the Symphony to its logical and triumphant conclusion.

This closing phase holds many challenges to conductors and orchestras. On the obvious level of virtuosity and momentum, Tennstedt and the LPO are magnificent, but ultimately they miss the spirituality which comes from the balancing of the complex orchestral textures and the phrasing of the final appearance of the brass chorale. Here, at the special moment of judgement, as it seems to me, Barbirolli's recording (EMI 5 66910 2) remains without peer.

Tennstedt is also a compelling interpreter of Das Lied von der Erde. In fact the recording has had a chequered life, apparently because the conductor was unsure about it and did not immediately sanction its release. Listening to it now, it is hard to understand why. The orchestral playing is top class and the singing is committed and characteristic. The only obvious drawback, though not a damaging influence, is that the tenor, Klaus König, sometimes seems strained in his approach.

That sense of strain, of course, is part and parcel of a vocal style that has its roots in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and in Wagner. It is just that in the opening movement, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of the Earth's Sorrow), one is more aware of the issue than one might wish to be. But the sweep of the music, and its ebb and flow, are wonderfully handled by Tennstedt, whose interpretation confirms that this work is a true symphony, not an orchestral song cycle.

Agnes Baltsa is in excellent voice throughout, held in an ideal balance with the orchestra, amid a recording ambience which does justice to Mahler's subtle textures. For this work above all shows the composer's fondness for using a series of chamber orchestras rather than merely one large orchestra. Tennstedt makes the most of the myriad opportunities for shaping this music, and the somewhat lighter inner movements have beautifully judged balances of orchestral colour, with the vocal line always caught in focus.

The final movement, Der Abschied (The Farewell) is the longest, not far off half the work, some 31 minutes out of 66 minutes in total. Maintaining the music's many tensions across that lengthy span is of course the major challenge, but it is a challenge that Tennstedt readily takes in his stride. And so too does Baltsa, who in my view matches the achievement of other, more famous, interpreters, including Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig, for example.

The orchestral details captured by the excellent EMI recording makes it sound just right for this music, since it is also lustrous and sonorous when required.

Tennstedt's performance of Das Lied von der Erde is on a separate disc, so the work need not necessarily have been issued in this pairing with the Symphony No. 5. However, since they are both excellent performances which are now available at a competitive price, they make a most attractive proposition.

Terry Barfoot


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