> Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 5 [TD]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1901-3)
Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester/Günter Herbig
East Berlin studio recording from the early 1980s


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Recently I reviewed a Berlin Classics recording of Mahlerís Sixth Symphony conducted by Gunther Herbig made "live" in Saarbrucken in 1999:


I thought it one of finest recordings of that work I had heard. Now here is a recording of Mahlerís Fifth from the same conductor: a studio version from the early 1980s when Herbig was conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra in the old East Berlin. Whilst I donít think it the equal of the Sixth itís still a recording that further illustrates Herbig as a conductor of major importance and a Mahlerian of some stature. As also did a recent superb Mahler Ninth with the BBC Philharmonic in a studio broadcast from Manchester.

Under Herbig the first movement of the Fifth opens with a stark, precise and challenging funeral march that is then swept away by a superbly breath-catching surge forward at the crucial Trio I "jump-off"(marked "Suddenly faster. Passionate. Wild") showing Herbig in full control of this movementís faculties as he takes Mahler at his word. As does the dread and dark quality Herbig imparts to the return of the opening fanfare music. This really is something out of 19th century gothic horror. Notice also the varied wind tones, well balanced and blended, something that will last the whole performance through. Then in the passage leading up to where Mahler ushers in the movementís coda with a "collapse climax" marked "Lamenting" Herbig speeds up, an effect that surprised me with a new perspective brought to the music. A fascinating and compelling first movement, therefore. The second movement begins, as Mahler intended, with maximum vehemence. This is the counterpart, almost the mirror image, of the first and is the completion of Mahlerís Part One so the conductor must show awareness of all this in the way he knits the common material of both movements together. Herbig does this just fine, but the conductor must also bring out the particular character of the movement on its own: a constantly changing, bipolar, helter-skelter, teetering on the edge of disintegration yet hanging together. Few conductors can bring that off completely but Herbig is certainly among them. The kaleidoscope is varied and holds the interest throughout. Depths are plumbed and heights are scaled superbly. Note especially Herbigís delivery of the heavy brass at 428-463 and the way the chorale-climax leaves something held back showing his awareness that it isnít until the last movement that this special moment will really clinch the emotional resolution of the work. The final descent at the close of the movement is suitably dramatic and pregnant with questions that the third movement/part two has to try to answer.

Clarity and a sharp rhythmic imperative mark out the third movement. Also, at over eighteen minutes, an acute awareness by Herbig that, as Mahler himself said, this music should not be rushed. But neither is it indulged in any way. Rather the press is on the world of the dance and I also liked Herbigís care for clear contrapuntal lines allowing those winds that I mentioned earlier to come through well. Certainly Herbig has changed the mood of the symphony effectively now. The horn solo trios have about them the air of a "play within a play" by the way Herbig subtly slows his tempi for the fine un-named soloist to shine.

So far, so good. But I wrote at the outset of this review that I didnít think this recording the equal of the Sixth Symphony under Herbig and it is in the final two movements where I felt a curious but very palpable falling away of what was promising to be something quite special. Donít misunderstand me, though. The Adagietto fourth movement is certainly well played, but there is not quite the degree of nostalgic reverie and depth of feeling that this lovely music surely needs. Itís a close-run thing but I felt rather detached from the symphony from now on. Then the last movement, whilst also well played and certainly rising to a barnstorming conclusion, comes over as a trifle ruthless. There is nothing wrong with a spring in the step in this movement. But at this kind of tempo a little more wit and twinkle would have gone a long way to showing the other side of Mahlerís character. So well illustrated by this symphony of change and contrast which the conductor must catch from first bar to last. Herbig just fails to do so in these last two movements.

Having heard and greatly admired Herbigís Mahler Sixth from just three years ago I would love to hear how he conducts the Fifth now as my final conclusion on this recording from twenty years ago must be one of "interpretation in progress". I am sure his thoughts would have settled by now. On the basis of the Mahler I have heard from Herbig, I certainly do hope to hear more. Maybe Berlin Classics will oblige and gain access to that BBC Philharmonic Ninth.

The recorded sound is clear and well balanced but lacking in some atmosphere and itís a trifle thin when the strings are playing high in their register. The orchestra donít have the character of the great city ensembles or give any evidence that they are a lesser band playing beyond themselves but they have some fine wind soloists and that goes a long way in this work.

My first choice for this work remains with Rudolf Barshai on Laurel Record (LR-905) that I reviewed here:


Rudolf Schwarzís old recording on Everest (EVC 9032) is also worth a listen and I reviewed that here also:


On reflection I should say that in my original review I was perhaps too harsh on the recorded sound of the Schwarz recording. Living with it over time in its present incarnation I think it can pretty well hold its own against most modern recordings and, in some cases, even be judged superior.

Herbigís is an interesting and rewarding earlier recording from a fine Mahlerian, but one that by the end doesnít quite deliver what it promised earlier.

Tony Duggan

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