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Classical Editor in Chief: Rob Barnett
Now re-issued coupled to Mahler Symphony 10 on Brilliant Classics 92205
Mahler's Fifth Symphony dramatises in music the whole concept of change and contrast in sympathy with his development as composer and man at that point in his life. It is also a supreme test for conductor and orchestra simply because it challenges them to explore extremes of expression whilst maintaining a unity of purpose that ultimately leads to satisfaction. Do anything else and it doesn't cohere since it travels the greatest emotional distance of all his works. This is Mahler's "Eroica", his "A Winter's Tale", or as Von Karajan once observed: "When you get to the end you find you have forgotten what age you were when you started." So it's a tall order to cover all bases and some conductors don't even come close. Most are good at the dramatic/tragic/dark end of the work but fewer appreciate the need to bring out the fantastic/joyful/light end that balances the piece across the whole range - even less can balance the two perfectly. But Rudolf Barshai does and it is that which makes this recording so special.
This is not a studio production put together from many takes. But neither is it one of those concert hall recordings that claims to be "live" but which is the product of two or more public performances assembled into one. This is a one-off performance where what the audience heard is what we hear. This may go some way towards making it the exceptional recording it is because the challenges of "live" performance often bring a sense of drama that no studio production can match, even though the price might sometimes be lapses in playing. However, I cannot hear any part of this performance where the playing is never less than inspired. All in all a remarkable feat when you remember this is an orchestra of students. Has the clean slate of inexperience been put to best use by a first class orchestral trainer making his mark? They do play as though their lives depended on giving Barshai every drop of attention and skill and the results are stunning. This would be considered great playing from one of the world's top professional orchestras. The recorded sound is big and bold also, with plenty of air around the instruments and a good generalised picture. Once or twice you feel the engineers have had to compromise dynamic levels, but this is a small quibble and should not bother you very much.
The opening funeral march is deceptive. There are recordings that launch us into an even blacker tragedy than this but it soon becomes clear that Barshai has a bigger agenda. By holding back just a little on tragic weight he seems to be more aware than most that this movement is part of two greater wholes: as first movement in both the two-movement Part I and in the five-movement symphony. It was only after repeated listening that this aspect became clear to me, but it soon came to assume greater relevance. Indeed it provided the key to what makes this performance tick. I think it vindicates an approach to the first movement that may well not knock you out on first hearing like some recordings do. Ones that, in the end, do not do the whole work as much justice as this. Having noted all of that, there is still no feeling of being unmoved by the first movement's implications under Barshai. It's just that he integrates the emotional foundations Mahler is laying into the work's nervous system far better. He is not the kind of conductor who wears his heart on his sleeve, and Mahler is not the kind of composer who ultimately benefits from that approach. The greatest Mahler conductors listen first to what Mahler is saying and then help the rest of us to hear it. The lesser talents listen to what Mahler is saying and join in. Barshai is clearly of the former category along with Jascha Horenstein whose spirit seems to be evoked here. So, like Horenstein, Barshai takes the longer view. The opening trumpet fanfare is challenging and the funeral march tough and dignified. Then, at the point in the movement marked "Suddenly faster. Passionate. Wild", there is release and power but no pointless hysteria. In fact Barshai just projects the music forward with great thrust and leaves it to make its own effect. We are then dragged back to reality by an especially rebarbative return of the trumpet fanfare only to be then ushered into the long winding down to the end in an unbroken strand. At the point just before the end where a kind of black hole opens up and swallows us, marked by Mahler "Lamenting", Barshai doesn't deliver this in quite the usual way. Most times the moment is rendered suddenly, like a great door slamming in our faces. Here it arrives like a bow wave seeming, like so much else in this performance, to come from within the cortex of the music.
I have known recordings where too dramatic a delivery of the first movement can then deaden the effect of the opening of the second. Barshai's view of the first movement and the way he gets his young players to unleash the second means this is certainly not the case here. Once again there is the feeling of integration between the two movements of Part I. The way the young German string players explode in the opening of the second movement also truly gives us Mahler's marking "Turbulently rough. With the greatest vehemence" marking. They are assisted by magnificent unanimity in the brass and by the woodwinds chattering malevolently when the storm dies down to bring in the reprise of the funeral march from the first movement. Here Barshai relates this reference back to the remarkable degree that is becoming so much a feature of this recording. So too is his feeling for the special colour of this movement as it progresses. This is especially evident in the build-up to the climax that is also superbly paced and full of great playing, especially at the climax itself where strings and brass are pitted thrillingly against each other. The coda then really snatches apparent hard-won triumph away. This passage is terrifying with brass as black as doom and crowned by a massive smash from the tam-tam that sends the movement to hell like a great mad animal felled by a juggernaut that in the closing pages lies twitching and wounded on the floor.
The third movement (Part II of the Symphony) is the point at which you know if the conductor has succeeded in catching the protean nature of the work by switching the mood to reflect the breadth of Mahler's conception. Mahler himself always feared conductors would take the third movement too fast but Barshai doesn't fall into that trap. At over eighteen minutes this is one of the longest versions you will hear and yet it doesn't seem like it. He also shows awareness of various rhythmic snaps that seem to invest every bar, especially the dance-like sections. As well as this he can pare the music down for the intimate sections - notice the lovely cello phrasing - then switch to the landscape-storming passages with the skill of a conjurer. Here the solo horn is especially fine and the spacious recording balance gives the impression of distance. We are a million miles from the trials of the first two movements and that is all a conductor needs to convey. But it needs intimate knowledge and a rare confidence that Barshai seems to possess in spades.
The last two movements together make up Part III, reflecting and balancing the structural imperative of the first two movements that make Part I. Since Barshai seemed very aware of that it's no surprise he is aware of it here also. However, the degree to which he is aware of it is still surprising and goes a long way to distinguishing this performance further. The first movement's Part III counterpart, the famous Adagietto for strings and harp, receives a unique performance. The vexed question is always the speed at which this is played. Even leaving aside the evidence of contemporaries whose notes confirm a more animated interpretation from Mahler the conductor than we are now used to, there's the firm belief this movement is a "song without words" to be played in line with what the human voice could cope with. Performances whose length in minutes is measured in double figures fall outside that. I would also add that in the last movement Mahler recalls the Adagietto in the way he also does themes from the first movement in the second. I believe the recapitulation of the Adagietto material in the fifth movement works best the closer it sounds to the way we heard it first. Since the reprise of the material in the last movement is, by nature of the movement it's contained in, somewhat quicker then an Adagietto nearer in tempo to it reinforces the point Mahler is trying to make that these two movements are indeed intimately connected. Barshai takes just over eight minutes for the Adagietto and that seems just right for investing it with the right amount of charged nostalgia and giving that crucial binding effect with the last movement. The string playing is also exceptional with matchless phrasing from all the desks. Further than that I can only add that this is the first time I have really been made to think of this wonderful movement as one among five rather than as a piece all to itself. I mentioned feeling the same way with his first movement so this is another example of Barshai's remarkable identification of the deep structures in this work.
Taken together as Part III the final two movements are different again from the third movement, but the structural integrity that is again stressed helps bind the elements together. The last movement itself is spaciously drawn and Barshai pulls off the trick of not letting the tension dip as Barbirolli does in his EMI recording. By also paying attention to the rhythmic gait, as well as to the Adagietto reprises, he conveys an honest, earthy humour that is ripe and exuberant but never forced. Another example of giving Mahler the last word. The end of the work in this recording is winning and enhancing and with the feeling that a vast journey has been completed, but one when you can remember every detail. That, in the last analysis, is the clincher for this recording as the best this work has received.
If you buy only one new Mahler recording this year make sure it's this one. Versions of Mahler symphonies of this calibre arrive very seldom. It is the finest recording of the Fifth Symphony currently available.
See Tony Duggan's synoptic overview of Mahler recordings.
The future of classical recording will be driven by the internet, says Norman Lebrecht
WORD of mouth, like nostalgia, is not what it used to be. In the cyber-chat age, when a girl can have a fun night out and find the intimate particulars posted on a million screens next morning, the acquisition of reputation has become a haphazard thing. Nowhere are the scales of judgment shifting more decisively than in music, the most nebulous of performing arts.
In September 1999, someone on an internet Mahler List reported a "remarkable performance" of the Fifth Symphony given by a youth orchestra, the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, in Cologne. Nothing more was heard until last month, when word broke that the concert was scheduled for release on an esoteric US label, Laurel Record.
Two cyber-reviews appeared within a week. The first, by David Hurwitz on classicstoday.com, acclaimed the performance as "one of the half-dozen best recordings of the work . . . right up there with Bernstein, Karajan, Barbirolli and Tennstedt". The second, by Tony Duggan on musicweb-international.com, called it "the finest recording of the Fifth Symphony currently available".
These were not nerdish rants, but scrupulous assessments by recognised Mahler cognoscenti aimed at consumers who know their gongs from their cowbells. Messages soon came pouring in from Mahlerians who had either bought the disc or been frustrated in the search. By the beginning of this week, when I tracked down the producer, the disc was in its second printing and being rush-shipped to Europe - all this before a single word had appeared about it in traditional print.
The speed and superlatives of web communications can create false legends. In this instance, the new recording fully lives up to its acclaim. It is searingly well played and uncannily well shaped, a rare blend of raw excitement and refined intelligence, with the most transcendent ending I have ever experienced. The cover picture says it all. Neither an airbrushed image of a primping maestro, nor an art shot of undulating landscape, it portrays the T-shirted woodwind section of a youth orchestra, their instruments tilted forward and upward (just as Mahler ordered) and blown to all appearances with the last breath in their bodies.
What you see is what you get. Such plain-Janery would never have sneaked past a big-store buyer in the bad old days. Indeed, no record of this kind could ever have hit the jackpot before the internet democratised the means of distribution and dialogue. Its conductor, Rudolf Barshai, is a known commodity. The outstanding viola player of his generation, Barshai co-founded the Borodin Quartet and later the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, which he conducted in the premiere of Shostakovich's 14th Symphony.
After leaving Russia in 1976, Barshai had involvements with the orchestras of Bournemouth and Vancouver, alongside a lively career as a guest conductor. That he should belatedly emerge as a Mahler intepreter is unexpected. But Barshai, in his late seventies, has been reflecting deeply on Shostakovich and became absorbed in Mahler as a primary influence. Over the past year he has composed a new realisation of Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony, which was premiered in St Petersburg and will be toured by the JDP. In it, Barshai went further down the dissonant path than Deryck Cooke and other completionists. "This manuscript must be made to come alive," he proclaimed.
His son, a California-based lawyer, took his recent tapes to major record labels, who balked at issuing staple works by a non-star conductor and at Barshai's editorial demands. With options running out, he found a mom-and-pop label in Nichols Canyon, Los Angeles, and struck a chord with its exotic owner. Herschel Burke Gilbert is a movie orchestrator who won two Oscars and was once music director for CBS TV. Thirty years ago, he founded Laurel Record as a hobby to issue obscure works by US composers. When Barshai's son played him the Mahler tapes, he was smitten, and for all sorts of reasons. Gilbert, who is 83 this week, graduated from Juilliard as a viola player and conductor. He was honoured to represent a master of his crafts. Mahler Fifth is his first mainstream release. It will be followed by the last concertos ever played by Sviatoslav Richter, conducted by Barshai in Japan, along with some Russian music and probably the Mahler Tenth. "I have been involved with recording all my life," Gilbert told me, "but I have never tasted such excitement as this."
And so, thanks to web buzz, Barshai and Gilbert may enjoy a golden Indian summer and many of us will relish treasures that we would never otherwise have accessed. The future of classical recording, if there is to be one, will be driven by the internet. The question is whether earth-bound media will manage to keep pace.
This review has been re-presented because we are now able to offer this disc for sale. Supply has been difficult since Red Hedgehog stopped trading
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